A Cloud Rising in the West

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Today’s Gospel lesson continues directly after the passage we heard last week. Last week, Jesus says, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Now he is criticizing people who don’t know how to interpret the present time. So which is it? Isn’t this contradictory? On the one hand we can’t know or predict and on the other we are supposed to know how to interpret the present time. Let’s look a little closer.

In both passages, Jesus is telling us to pay attention, to be vigilant. In the first, Jesus is calling out people’s tendency to be smug and complacent—people love to use their piety and assumptions about God to lay out expectations about what God will do, to get way out beyond any evidence and take their ease in being self-satisfied, because, “Hey, nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m good, no reason to be concerned about all this stuff happening to other people, God will take care of it.” Jesus is having none of this – we are called to discipleship, not self-satisfaction. The salvation that he brings is for the healing of the world, not for individuals to just wallow in their own privileged and comfortable role as “the saved.”

So Jesus continues to call for vigilance. Human beings can see things in the world. Long before weather satellites and Doppler radar, people paid attention to what was happening with the weather. It was always important to know when to take cover from an impending storm, or when to get ready to plow a field on a good day with calm and dry weather. Our advanced technology measures things accurately and records lots more information than an individual can see, so we read about the weather or watch the forecast on TV and we know pretty well what weather is coming. But people in earlier times had to be sensitive to what was going on, they needed to pay attention to things like the direction of the wind, the color of the sunset, the smell of the air. So when Jesus mentions a cloud rising in the west, or a south wind blowing, people knew what he was talking about, because that’s what they did. They noticed these things all the time and understood what they meant.

Jesus is using this to point out that we can see what is going on in the world, if we only pay attention, if we are vigilant and attentive.  Yet, how many manage to not see the things that are before their eyes. Our psalm for today says,

How long will you judge unjustly,

     and show favor to the wicked?

Save the weak and the orphan;

     defend the humble and needy;

Rescue the weak and the poor;

     deliver them from the power of the wicked.

They do not know, neither do they understand;

     they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Psalm 82:2-5

In this angry country of ours, there are so many who loudly insist that the power of the police must be wielded more and more to control people they are afraid of, people they don’t like, people who don’t resemble them. Yet we see what happens when one of their own is served a search warrant because there is probable cause that evidence of a crime is at his oceanside resort: hysterical calls to defund the law enforcement agency that executed the warrant. We can see the irony of this, it’s visible to anyone who has eyes, but they are blind to it. Jesus says you can see the rainclouds, you can feel the south wind, or the red sunset: Why can’t you see what is happening in this world?

People are blind to what they don’t want to see. People find rationalizations to explain away the truth when they are more comfortable by not acknowledging it. People deny its what’s happening—they really don’t see it, they really don’t understand its malignance and its danger to our country. That is the real danger.

It takes courage to look at the present time, to see it, to stand up for truth. Standing in Jesus’ love, being his compassion, is not a passive or a convenient thing. Being Christ’s Body isn’t some simple program. Because it involves being Christ’s Body all the time, in all parts of our life, seeing the truth that is before us. In the Gospel, Jesus says,

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.

Luke 12:51-53

It is not about starting fights, or violence—it’s about seeing the truth and living the truth in a world in which so many cleave to darkness, rather than be illuminated by the compassion of Christ and see the truth that is before their eyes.

My mother died three years ago tomorrow. When I was young, I talked with my mom a lot. She was very thoughtful and she saw many things that others ignored, particularly out in that cow country where the prosperous ranchers often distorted politics to their own advantage. It was in those long conversations with mom that I was first able to look beyond myself and think critically, to know God and also to be skeptical of some of the things that happen in the church—to see the reality in front of me and to interpret the present time.

Being faithful to Jesus is not complicated, in fact it’s the opposite: simply see what is there, and don’t be worried or try to figure out complicated ways to not see and explain reality away. Frightened and faithless people do that. But we are God’s people, part of that great cloud of witnesses in every generation, so be awake to what you see.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2

The Conviction of Things not Seen

A sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This verse is very well known and it’s often treated as a philosophical definition of faith. But our reading from Hebrews isn’t a philosophical treatise—it speaks of people of faith and how God provided for them amidst great challenges.

A few years ago, in the wake of one of the continuing stream of high profile mass shootings, I was listening on the radio to a reporter interview a woman who had lost a family member in it.She said she was a woman of faith and the reporter asked her: “Does this shake your faith?”   Her response clearly summed up what it means to be a person of faith in such a difficult time. As I remember, she said she couldn’t really say where God was in all this, or what was happening. She didn’t think that God wanted her loved one to die like this. Her faith is that God loves her and those people who were killed. But right now, she doesn’t know what to do or think. What she said was something like that—very real, not tied up into a neat package with a pretty theological bow, but still knowing the essential of faith, that God is love, even when we don’t feel it.

The thing is, our faith in God is our life; and when our life is shaken, our faith IS shaken. I can easily believe that that woman felt very shaky, she might still, even years after her loss. And I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she was afraid and anxious. That is how you feel when your life is shaken.

If we pay attention to scripture, it is at precisely such times that God acts for God’s people, even though they don’t see it, don’t feel it, don’t understand it, don’t believe it. Our Old Testament lesson and our Epistle tell the story of Abraham, who at ninety years old was childless and without an heir. His wife Sarah was about the same age and had always been barren. God sent him out to look at the stars. Remember, this is long before the electric illumination of our big cities made the stars seem so much fewer.

Three years ago, when my mother was nearing the end of her life, we travelled to central Oregon, where my sister’s home is out in the countryside. We went out at night and looked at the moonless night sky. The sky was so vast and dark, filled with all sorts of stars, even shooting stars. The Milky Way was fully visible. A couple of dozen people might be able to divide up the sky and make some kind of count of the stars you see from New York city. But out there in the mountains, the stars are literally uncountable. And that is what God says to Abraham: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them—So shall your descendants be.” God’s promise and the hope of Abraham came before there was any way that it seemed feasible—there was no plan, there was nothing you could see, except, perhaps, the stars.

Hope is not just anything you happen to wish for.  It is certainly not arrogantly thinking that God will give you the specific things you have decided you need to carry out some plan you have come up with. Hope is far more flexible than that. Hope is about living in God’s love.  And sometimes … that life is shaken, sometimes our faith is shaken, and sometimes that means that our hope appears to have been shaken as well. But that’s just it. Our faith is assurance of things hoped for—things NOT SEEN. Like that woman I heard on the radio who could not see what God was doing, we wait in faith for God’s action, for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

But what is God’s promise? Is it comfort? Or wealth? Or well-being?  Despite what you can hear if you turn into just the right TV broadcast, none of those things is promised by God. God’s promise is God’s love: God’s love for us and a life in which we are formed into being God’s love. That promise will be fulfilled—it is being fulfilled here each day—but the things that happen along the way? The things we like to call the results of our plans? Those things are not what God has promised. God has promised to make us his people, what more can we ask than that?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The promise is glorious, but our life of faith is in the real world, not some fantasy world of easy prosperity.  Though we do not know what God’s future holds for us, Jesus nevertheless tells us to be prepared: To take action, live lives of generosity, giving to those who are in need, keeping our lamps lit, looking for the signs of where God is leading us, ready to serve God at any turn—even in our most unlikely or off-putting neighbor. We don’t always experience this life of generosity and discipleship as the kingdom, because it’s often hard work and sometimes disappointing, but living as God’s love in expectation of the kingdom is how we see God’s future for us.

Trinity Church has challenges and we may feel shaky at times. I do not know what the future holds, God seldom delivers according to OUR specifications. I do know that we are God’s people right now—when I look at Trinity I see care and compassion, people looking out for the well-being of others and with concern for those outside of our doors and those who come after us.  Do not be afraid, or at least if you are, know that God will keep you safe anyway. In particular do not be afraid of living generously and of shaping our life together in ways that benefit those who aren’t part of the present community within these four walls. We are not here for ourselves, we are here as ambassadors of God’s love.

If he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Luke 12:38-40

Clothe Yourselves with Compassion

A sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

­­You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.

To me, one of the most ominous things about the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, is that it makes no sense in twenty-first century American culture. Basically, the story is that the guy’s business is doing really well, so he decides to invest in improved facilities, expand his operation, and put away something for the future.

So what is Jesus getting at? This is the prescribed course for success that you would get anywhere, from self-help books to financial advice columns, or tomes by Nobel Prize winning economists. What this guy does embodies the values of contemporary American culture.

So I guess Jesus is calling us all fools. No wonder most people don’t come to church anymore. But why does he say it? And why do we miss his point? Let’s look at the story—what’s in it? There are crops, an abundance of crops, barns, business planning, success. The man even has a soul, you know because he talks to it: “Soul, you have ample goods…relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Pretty much the American Dream, complete. What’s not in this story?

There is nobody else in the story.

No one.

Just the rich man and his thoughts for his own security and comfort.

In recent decades, Americans have increasingly moved toward admiring people simply because they have achieved wealth and comfort; perhaps because we aspire for the same for ourselves. But these are non-Christian values. It’s not that comfort. or planning, or even wealth are bad, but what do we value, what are our priorities, what do we seek after in our lives? First, the better question is not what, but who do we value. God’s people are all around us, each with a need for kindness, compassion, generosity. The Kingdom of God is not made up of isolated individuals, each with her own castle. Rather it is the Body of Christ where each interrelated member is generous to the others and thrives through the hospitality of the whole Body.

Today’s reading from Colossians emphasizes this: “…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self—which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.” Our values as Christians are to grow in kindness and connection with others. Pre-occupation with our own survival, our own comfort or our own wealth, either as individuals or as a church, is unworthy of the Gospel of Christ. Christ calls us to be encouraged, and to have the courage to live lives of generosity and caring.

The concluding words of the Gospel lesson about the fool are: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” The permanent value of all that we gain is in giving to others; it is foolish to think that holding on to things makes one wealthy.

The Epistle to the Colossians continues with words that describe the wealth of Christians, so I’ll conclude with this passage:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Save us from the Time of Trial

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Today’s gospel lesson features the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been the characteristic prayer of Christians since the very beginning. Early Christian writings say that every Christian should say it three times a day—before Morning Prayer and Evensong were invented, the Lord’s Prayer was the daily Christian liturgy. The Lord’s Prayer exists in a few slightly varying forms in ancient documents, and the form we have today in the Gospel of Luke is the simplest and shortest. This can help us to understand the longer version of the prayer that we say every Sunday and which we hold in our memory.

The spirituality of Jesus and the followers of Jesus are quickly outlined: Simple reverence for God—Father, hallowed be your name; Your kingdom come—the Kingdom of God among us, life in the Commonwealth of God is the most distinctive part of the teaching of Jesus. I’m often puzzled when people suggest using this prayer as non-sectarian and appropriate for groups that are largely non-Christian. There is nothing more Christian than to pray for the Kingdom of God to come.

The Kingdom of God is very different from the Kingdom of this world. It is not about power; it is not about intimidation or fear. It is not about one group gathering all the power and wealth it can to itself at the expense of others. You see the Kingdom in Jesus healing the sick from disease and from being oppressed by those demons that distort the lives of individuals and society. You see the Kingdom in Jesus, the servant of all, who encourages everyone to be neighbors to one another.  You see the Kingdom in him as he faced those powers of the world and was killed by them and yet was raised by God from the dead.  In saying, “Your kingdom come,” we pray for the resurrection of the dead in Jesus Christ.

And it is in that vision of that Kingdom of God that we pray the next sentence: “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread Nourished. Each day.  In God’s commonwealth there is enough. Enough to share, but not enough to grab and keep for ourselves. Life with Jesus is simple, it is an ordinary experience of peace. In his prayer, what we request is the basics of real life, not the fantasies of what we might want, or the violence of what we might take.

The way that the next petition is phrased is somewhat ironic—it points up something we want to ignore: Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  This is a dangerous prayer—by entering into it, you end up giving up all claims you have to what others owe you. Of course, God’s forgiveness of our sins is much larger than that, but still, it’s a pretty audacious prayer.  It’s costly to be Jesus’ disciple. The bounty of God’s overwhelming love, forgiveness and free grace flows to us all, in pure generosity. In the Kingdom of Christ, we live from God’s generosity and we live in God’s generosity, and it only costs us …. Everything. It costs us our fears and our selfishness. It costs us our self-righteousness and judgement. It costs us our smugness and our complacency.

And that’s why the prayer ends— “Save us from the time of trial.” The trial is the temptation to turn our backs on the Kingdom of Peace and accept the world of violence, fear and anger, as we see just about every time we turn to the national news recently. The time of trial when the only way forward for everyone seems to be to hold on to the despair of anger and to give up on the hope of forgiveness. Save us from the time of trial when the way to Jesus’ resurrection seems totally blocked by that stone sealing the tomb, and those soldiers blocking the way.

The Gospel lesson continues, and Jesus continues to teach about prayer. Usually the experts observe that these stories are about persistence in prayer. That’s true. But I think Jesus is also playing with us a bit. He taught his disciples and us this simple prayer of the Kingdom. But how often do we get bogged down in being all religious about that? “Oh yes. We must be grateful and generous and forgiving.” “Oh yes, we are the faithful disciples.” “Oh yes, we never give in to the temptation to be fearful.” So Jesus tells a story about his followers and their friends and neighbors who are probably also Jesus’ followers. One goes to the other and asks for a cup of sugar or something, because guests were coming. And Jesus tells it like it actually happens (or the way that people sometimes feel)—that friend says, “No, go away! You’re always bothering me and I don’t feel like helping you out!” In this real world, people don’t always cooperate, not everything goes smoothly and not everyone is nice. Jesus is teasing us. It is not because you are perfect, or because you feel good that you are part of the Kingdom of God, it is because you are God’s child. And look! What’s in my hand? Is it an egg for you to eat? Or is it a scorpion to sting and hurt you? It’s possible to think of people who might play that trick, but not a loving parent, not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, not in the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of Peace. Jesus’ stories tease us out of that fearfulness and anger that are that trial that can tempt us. He forgives us and directs us to our daily bread.

The ancient Didache, or Teaching, of the Twelve Apostles, instructs us to pray this prayer three times a day. Before we come forward and share in the heavenly bread of the Eucharist (our Great Thanksgiving), Let’s pray in the words that our Lord taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.

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

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Better Part

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

When Abraham saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.”

Hospitality is a major theme in today’s lessons. Today’s lesson from Genesis is perhaps the most classic example of hospitality in the ancient Near East. On a hot summer day, in an arid climate, Abraham put his tent up amid an oak grove, whose canopy helped keep it cool. As he was sitting in the tent’s doorway Abraham looked up and saw three men. They weren’t familiar people, but Abraham didn’t ignore them; he ran out to them, invited them in to take food and water, and be rested and refreshed. Abraham’s behavior was not unusual, it was what ordinary, decent people did in those days, especially for strangers. People helped one another out simply because they were other human beings. The rules, traditions and expectations of hospitality in those times and places could be quite elaborate, but the principle is not unlike what people do nowadays when there is some sort of natural disaster. For instance, after a blizzard people will help others get their cars unstuck, or even invite a stranded stranger into their homes so they won’t freeze to death. Decent people do that, anyway.

We see the same in our Gospel lesson where Martha and Mary extend hospitality to Jesus. Most of the time, when this passage is discussed people are quick to treat it like a competition, and choose whether they are on Team Martha or Team Mary. But hospitality is not a competition, neither is it about doing certain things to demonstrate what sort of person you are.  Hospitality is about taking care of the guests and their needs. When Jesus said to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part,” what had Mary chosen? What it says is that she “listened to what he was saying.” What is meant by this is that part of taking care of a guest is listening to what they are saying—paying attention to what is important to them.

In both of these lessons the result of this hospitality is a blessing from God. The men that Abraham invited to his table brought the message from God that Abraham and Sarah were to miraculously have a child and become the ancestors of a great nation. In Luke, it’s not quite as obvious what the blessing is, but the section that immediately follows Jesus saying that Mary had chosen the better portion by sitting and listening to him is where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray and to be persistent in seeking blessings from the all-merciful God.

Extending hospitality resulted in getting a blessing of God in these stories, but the people in the stories were not being hospitable because they expected to get anything for themselves. They were simply being decent human beings. There is no sense of any exchange going on here; they are just doing what a person does when someone comes to them for food, or rest, or to be listened to. There are many things that can happen when we extend hospitality—we never know what will happen until we do it. We never know what being a decent human being entails until we try it.

For several years now, this church has extended its hospitality to the fellows of the New York Social Justice Collaborative. There are many ways in which their presence has been a blessing for us and Trinity has been a blessing for them. This week, someone broke in to the Rectory and those fellows had a very frightening experience. None were physically injured, but they no longer feel safe in our rectory. Our hospitality has not ended in a nice story wrapped up with a bow. Our congregation suffers trauma along with our guests. This is, perhaps, more akin to the story that is in Genesis about a chapter later, when two of the same angels received hospitality from Abraham’s nephew Lot in the city of Sodom. The men of that city violated his hospitality and threatened his guests. That story ends with a much more ambiguous ending, where Lot and his family are saved by the guests but their city is destroyed.

Sometimes being decent human beings results in hard things, and it requires courage to continue doing the right thing. It is often not easy. But it is how we remain human. God’s mercy and God’s blessing are always here. Every Sunday we partake of God’s blessing in the Body of a human being who was tortured to death on a cross. God’s tenderness and mercy for us are right here, in the midst of all these human things we live among.

This break-in is very close to us. But we live in a time when many seem to have given up on being decent human beings, on taking the basic risk of extending hospitality—the very things that knit us together as people who can live together as a society. I encourage you all to persist in hospitality and to encourage those whom you know to increase their own hospitality. It’s what keeps us human.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke to the church about two thousand years ago:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. …For God has said,

‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’

So we can say with confidence,

‘The Lord is my helper;

   I will not be afraid.

What can anyone do to me?’

Hebrews 13:1-3, 5b-6

The One who showed him Mercy

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Two Sundays ago, the lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine and ended in Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans.

Samaritans celebrate Sukkot at Mount Gerizim

The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.

In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds.  So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate.   Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?” He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is.  Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way.  He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.

Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.

Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question.  Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.

These past few weeks, while I’ve been away on vacation, the news has been filled with dramatic examples of people acting the opposite of being neighbors, and others failing to act as neighbors when they had the opportunity has presented itself. We are in a scary time when everybody seems to shout: “NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.

It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that.  What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I have no quick or easy answer.

But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?”  It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” Let us go and be merciful in all our lives.

Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you;

     let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame;

    let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord,

     and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

     for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

     for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

     remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

Gracious and upright is the Lord;

     therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right

     and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness

    to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Psalm 25:1-9

How Exalted is your Name in all the World

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 12, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!

Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the Feast Day of the name of this parish, its 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.  As our psalm today says, God is to be exalted in all the world, it is the majestic God that created all things that protects us and cares for us, that leads us into all truth. When Christians talk about that God, we talk about the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

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. The ancient world had a marketplace of Gods. You could take your pick of the ones that were around, negotiate for the best deal you could get, find the most advantageous terms. But Israel rejected all that for the one true God, the God of Truth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who would hold them responsible for lives of faithfulness and compassion. “You shall have no other gods before me.” This has been the essential teaching of the Christian church at all times, from the very beginning to the present.  But as we Christians describe God, we must describe our experience of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, and the Holy Spirit enlivening and guiding the church.

This can sound all very high falutin’ and metaphysical, but 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 the prophets spoke against, or mistakes in how we describe or follow religious truth. 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. Indeed, affirming God the Holy Trinity puts to the lie the many representations of Christianity that use Bible verses and assertions of religious traditions to rationalize hate and cruelty and limiting God’s love to those who have someone’s stamp of approval.

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 some magical potion. Jesus was God’s love for us, walking among us, living as a man from God’s point of view—that is, a life lived entirely for the good of others. 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 sinfulness 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. We teach and we believe that the God of Love has come among us and that God’s love among us is the Holy Spirit.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus say? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” … “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

 And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  At the Last Supper, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment.  In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together. But the Spirit doesn’t just hold us together, otherwise the church would have ended with those first disciples holding one another together.  The Spirit is here among us, to reach out, beyond our comfortable confines, to convey God’s love, and our own respect to others, the many people around who need a little more respect and care. In this time when hate and condemnation are having a resurgence in this country, Christians need to attend to our own inclinations to care more for ourselves than to listen to the Holy Spirit—to listen to our own young people and others the church has ignored for too long.

The Holy Trinity upholds us, binds us, comforts us and leads us into the truth of God’s compassionate life in Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, to quell the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him? the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor;

You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!

Psalm 8:2-10

They began to Speak in other Languages

A sermon for Pentecost, June 6, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Fifty days after Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead and he appeared to his disciples. He appeared to them and taught them for forty days. Then he ascended into heaven and things were no longer the same. The disciples were no longer at Jesus’ feet, listening to him teach and advising them on the future. For those ten days after Jesus ascended, our lesson from the book of Acts portrays the disciples as all sitting in one house together. (This is similar to the scene the Gospel of John when the disciples locked themselves in the upper room out of fear and the resurrected Jesus appeared among them, even though the doors were locked.) The disciples now find themselves living in a new and difficult time, unable to have Jesus there to tell them what to do, or how to be.  They were bereft, alone, without direction. Just sitting there, together.

“Suddenly the sound of a hurricane filled the whole house; sparks and flames were around them and lighted on their heads; and each of them started speaking in different languages, languages that none of them knew.”

Acts 2:2-4 paraphrased

It wasn’t Jesus coming into the house to show them his wounds, show them that he was alive and reassure them—it was the Holy Spirit coming in like an explosion, turning everything upside down—and everything changed.

The disciples went out and encountered people they didn’t know. They spoke to those people in their own languages, and shared the Gospel of God’s mercy, of Christ’s resurrection. Here’s what Peter said:

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:16-21

Your sons and daughters, even your slaves shall prophesy, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Yesterday, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, six of the daughters and sons of Trinity Church were confirmed. Bishop Glasspool laid hands on each of them and said this: “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant—Omar, Monica, Bryce, Mia, Joshua, Samora—with your Holy Spirit; empower them for your service; and sustain them all the days of their life.” The same Spirit that changed everything for the disciples and caused them to speak in many foreign languages is now on our young members to empower them for God’s service.

The Holy Spirit changes things, it disrupts our accustomed ways of doing things. None of Jesus’ disciples thought they would end up talking to people in Phrygian or Pamphylian. The Holy Spirit disrupts our church as well. In fifteen or twenty years, when these newly confirmed members are twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five years old, the church will be radically different from what it is today. I assure you of that; I’m not guessing.  Last Sunday, I asked these young people what the church could do so that it would be more possible for them to fulfill their promises to:

  • Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
  • Persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

The most frequent answer I heard from our young people was, “Listen to us.” Not, “Guess what we would like,” but actually hear what we think, understand what we want, let us have a real say in how things take shape in the months and years to come. The Episcopal Church in general has done a terrible job of listening to younger people for a long time—even people who are thirty-five or forty years old have not been heard or understood, and that is a big part of the reason why we see so few of them in church today. We may want the younger people to replicate the church of our own childhood or young adulthood, but the Holy Spirit is interested in something else: a church in which Christ is seen and served in all people, where the dignity of every person is respected.  To persevere in resisting evil is a struggle, and young people need to know they are respected and that the things they choose actually can take effect. I do not know the shape of the church to come. I hope that we can hear from some of these newly confirmed members from this pulpit this Fall.

We look forward to the Holy Spirit leading God’s church in the decades to come. St. Paul sums it up in this morning’s epistle:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 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.

Romans 8:14-17

Come Lord Jesus

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 29, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Our lesson today comes at the very end of the Book of Revelation; the very end of the Bible. It is an invitation and a promise. The images of the Spirit and the Bride refer to the Holy Spirit—the life of God that enlivens the church—and the Bride of Christ, which in the Book of Revelation, is portrayed both as the church and as the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is an image of the Kingdom of God. Both the Spirit and the Bride say “Come”—inviting all to enter in.

At the same time, “Come” is also prayer for the return of Jesus. “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus” was a common prayer for Christians in the first hundred years or so of the church.  It continues, “Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’” The whole assembly, including us, at this time, is about welcome and inviting. The good news of God’s overwhelming love is about sharing, and healing, and giving life.

The next sentence is: “Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” The living water that enlivens our spirit and gives us hope, is the possession and property of no human being. It is the gift of God—take it as a gift.

Today there are many who are thirsty; many whose spirits are hurt, lost, angry, discouraged and dying in their spirit. Especially when violence, like we’ve seen in the past two weeks, with two high-profile mass shootings in our country. Children, their teachers, grocery store shoppers were killed by young men with weapons designed for the military and that are meant only for the purpose of killing as many people as efficiently as possible. According to news reports, the killers appear to be young men filled with rage. They feel aggrieved or helpless or unable to get everything they think they deserve. So they bought these guns and went out to inflict their rage and self-pity on others, and they chose people who had no way of protecting themselves.

Make no mistake about it: The easy availability of these weapons, virtually to any and all comers is the primary driver of our country’s terrible problem with gun violence. These weapons should not be available to individuals at all. Yet our lawmakers are stymied at even the most innocuous and common-sense regulation of gun sales. By prohibiting the CDC from studying gun violence as a public health problem, the politicians that have made themselves dependents of the gun lobby have politicized this gun violence and put themselves on the side of the murderers of our children.

But what does this mean to us as Christians, you might ask? Well, it’s about what I often preach about—demons are real and they walk among us. These guns, these agents of death—their manufacture, their sale, their promotion—take on a life of their own. A demonic life, as I’ve spoken about before, which is outside the control of all those who think they can control it, or who we might think can control it. And the consequence of this demonic power is that it possesses people. Sure, there have always been angry and aggrieved people, young and old, rich and poor, people who act in self-pitying and deluded ways. But with these demonic forces abroad, the rage and the self-pity and the turning to violence increase in a feedback loop of death and destruction. We see this, and it’s frightening. We see that these people been seduced by the demons of violence and intimidation. They may even think that they can gain some freedom from their entrapment by a violent act, but their rage and violence only trap them more.  

And then, there’s us, and the good people of Buffalo and Uvalde, and their families and friends who are mourning those lives lost in unspeakable ways. We and they are only looking for peace, for safety, for ourselves and our loved ones.

But—The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” “Let everyone who is thirsty Come! Take the water of life as a gift.” It is yours, it is ours, it is for all of us.  Yet even more, it belongs to the one who promises, “Surely, I am coming soon.” The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one—that Jesus who we know has come for us, with mercy and healing. In his promise and his name, the water is freely given—life is here in the sharing. The power brokers of the world try to surround the living water with barriers, they charge tolls, because they can’t imagine anything other than the world as it is—complete with its demons. The power brokers think violence is an acceptable loss if the world keeps giving them what they want, and especially when it happens to people who they don’t care about.

This is all difficult to reconcile, but Jesus—the one who himself was pierced—is still with us, welcoming and healing and making us one. Last Thursday, the church observed the Feast of the Ascension when Christ left his disciples and ascended into heaven. He may have ascended, but he is still here, in our broken and grieving world. 

Our Gospel lesson today is a prayer from the Gospel of John, which Jesus prayed at his last meal with his disciples. He prays for all of us who believe in him. “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”  We live in the Glory of God, we live in the divine life, not because we are so good, or because we live in a problem-free world,  but because God loves us and dwells in us and we in him. We celebrate God’s glory because of the gift of the water of life.

            Jesus says, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.”

The Spirit and the Bride say: Come

And let everyone who hears say: Come!

And let everyone who is thirsty Come!

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord be with all the saints. Amen.

Revelation 22:17, 20-21

I saw no Temple in the City

A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2022

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Today’s second reading is the culmination of the book of Revelation, and since that is the last book of the Bible in some ways it is the culmination of the whole thing. The lectionary leaves out several verses near the beginning of the passage, so I would like to read the first part of that reading again with those verses included so you can get the full effect:

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Rev. 21:10-24)

Revelation 21:10-24

This is the vision of the Holy City of God, the vision of our future and the future of the universe—majestic, awe inspiring—and it makes no sense. The measurements reported, make a cube which, if superimposed on the United States, would stretch from the northern tip of Maine to Winnipeg, Manitoba, (I realize that Winnipeg isn’t in the US, but it just won’t fit!) to the southern tip of Texas and over to Miami, Florida, as well as reaching a thousand miles above the end of the earth’s atmosphere. A big city. It is composed of pure gemstones and is made out of transparent gold—whatever that is. The images cascade over us, images of grandeur, beauty, value and purity, but in the end we really can’t envision or comprehend this as an actual thing. For instance, where do the people fit in? The book of Revelation envisions God triumphant over evil and destruction, and God’s people at peace and in God’s presence. And this we can accept with great confidence. Yet the vision of the future is really saying that we don’t know—as wonderful as heaven will be, the way it will be is really inconceivable. This passage points out things that won’t be needed—the sun and the moon, the great sources of light, for God will be the source of light and there will be no night. We will somehow be transformed, with no need of sleep or darkness. And there will be no need for a temple or a church or any other place of worship for all existence will be both worship and comfort from God who will be directly present.

But think about that for a minute, if you take away that many reference points, we can’t really imagine anything at all, not as a concrete reality.

We really don’t know what the future holds. We shouldn’t confuse our imagination or our aspirations with knowing the future. Our faith assures us that God is here and will ultimately be even more present, with richness beyond all imagining. Our images of heaven, or the afterlife, or the end of this world are only metaphors for the love of God. Those who dredge through the text of the book of Revelation and claim to have discovered exact events that are going to happen are simply not reading the Bible faithfully.

We also do not know what the future holds for our country, our families, ourselves or our church. Indeed, we plan, based on what we know about the present and likely patterns of things that will occur, like the sun coming up in the morning, and paying taxes on April 15. But with all the glorious and varied possibilities in this world, the predictions we make, even if it’s only a few years out, even if it’s only to election day this fall,  are guesses that almost certainly will need to be adjusted and often are totally wrong. So when we build images of our future, we should be careful of which building blocks our imagination uses.

In today’s gospel, this guy is lying by this pool where people are expecting to be healed if they can get into the water first, after some event happens that stirs up the water. Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well. The man’s response was not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but an explanation that everybody was getting in before him. His imagination was that this was the one and only way to become well. Jesus told him to rise and he became well, even though he never got to the pool. When we look around, people envision the world as it is, society as it is, and assume that everything will stay the same. Religious people are particularly guilty of this—imagining that God’s mercy will take no new forms, that the limitations that our society, politics and economic system place on people are permanent and unchangeable … even when it is clear that all manner of good things have changed and there’s new evidence every day of the country we know passing away. Jesus asks if we want to be healed, and we just rattle on about how we just don’t have the resources, or the energy or the hope to heal ourselves. And that’s right—it is God who heals, not ourselves. It is a changed world that God brings to us, not a role in reinforcing how things have become.

The future for Trinity and for the Episcopal Church is uncertain. The way forward is not clear. What is clear to me is that we don’t get to God’s future by struggling to become what we once were in the past. We accept the healing power of God’s mercy, our healing is in being Jesus’ own, of living lives that are Jesus’ life—lives of blessing, generosity, healing and worship.

 “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

Revelation 21: 22

‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.’

Revelation 22:17