Comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…”

These words were first spoken to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It had been a very difficult time: dragged away from their homeland after military conquest and at least two generations in captivity in a foreign land and now they were faced with the possibility of return—a daunting possibility for weary people.

So the prophet speaks: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”—make a straight highway in the desert, completely flat with every valley filled and the hills graded down, so you have a completely straight shot, an easy ride back home to Jerusalem… Kind of like I-78 to Newark, but without as much traffic.

There is no evidence of any kind that a road like that was ever built, but the prophet is saying: God is taking care of you, will take care of you and you will make it, and you will be God’s people. The people did make it back to Judea, to Jerusalem and without the journey being a particularly noteworthy hardship. God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to them because they were weary and fearful.

Now, the word of hope and encouragement from God does not in any way deny the realities and difficulties of this world. It says here, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” We can be afraid, we are afraid, and things do happen, of which we have been afraid…

So many things in the news, in our national consciousness. So many instances and patterns of sexual intimidation and bullying—almost as if the way to success has been to hurt and shame others; to use a bit of advantage to degrade others and make oneself comfortable. This is not unlike the tyrants and despots of ancient days who the prophets of Israel prophesied against. It is what Jesus came to save us from, despite what a certain candidate for public office wants to suggest in trying to protect his own taking advantage of teenaged girls. Sometimes we even find these things happening in religious institutions, even our own Episcopal church. People find pious, theological or righteous sounding words to mask their own self-serving and destructive behavior.  Jesus called it out in his own generation—he faced it. God come among us faced this for us. And yet we see it persisting in our own day.

It’s enough to make you weary, and fearful.

But then what does the prophet say to those weary and fearful people?

Get you up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good tidings;

lift up your voice with strength,

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,

lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

God’s comfort for his people is at the same time his call. Lift up your voice, do not fear! That is the only thing that any of us can do to combat that malignant fear that infects this country and which protects those who lash out and even kill the powerless. Here is your God!: The God who came into this world, not in an imperial palace, or even in the courts of the privileged, but as a powerless baby in a stable in an out-of-the-way little town.

That God: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather them in his arms, carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This God protects his people and in so doing calls us all to not fear, and to lift up our voice and say that we are not afraid.

There are many things that people fear. For some of us, it is losing our privilege or security, for others it might be fear of being the target of abusers and bullies, whose cowardice leads them to selfishly destroy and demean others. But we are a new creation in Christ. This Advent we look toward his coming. In him, in that powerless child, the spiritual power of fear is broken. We can stand and speak the truth—the truth that the only value that counts is compassion, God’s compassion for us and our compassion for one another.  Things happen, the grass withers, the flower fades, but we fear them not because we are in the presence of the Lord.

In today’s letter from Peter it says: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Justice, and freedom from fear, are painfully slow in arriving, but it is God who is patient with us. Let us hear again the end of this lesson:

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Lift up your voice. Do not fear, but proclaim that the God of justice is here, to hear and protect us all.

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Came to Visit us in Great Humility

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility…

Today we begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays before Christmas we prepare for the feast where we celebrate God come into this world, as a human being, specifically as a helpless and powerless baby from a family that was basically poor. One way that Christians celebrate this feast of the Incarnation is to give gifts, in honor and rejoicing that Jesus is in this real world where real things are important.

Of course, the culture around us sort of overemphasizes that a bit. The stuff outshines the star and even the baby. But even while the church affirms the enjoyment of Christmas and its material aspects, it has always prepared for it in a very different way. Advent is not about stuff. It is not about a baby. It is not about buying or cheery songs about snow. Advent is about the coming of the Lord; the day when all humanity shall see and be accountable to God. The images in our lessons are not light or superficial—in fact, they can be downright scary. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

In other words, prepare to meet your God.

But why? Why can’t we just have a merry little Christmas and be all cozy and party as the days grow dark and the weather gets cold? It’s a good question. I like to have fun and enjoy the holidays. But let’s remember, Christmas is real—Jesus really was born and came into this real world for us. And the world he came into, and continues to come into is very real indeed, and it is not all sweetness and light.

We live in a time and in a world where it is all too easy to listen to our fears, to let them take shape in groups that we can blame or be angry at.  It’s easy to listen to confident and glib people tell us why we should be scared, and who we should blame. In our time, we are well acquainted with the works of darkness.

For example, on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the senior member of the clergy of our worldwide Anglican Communion, found it necessary to make this statement:

“It is deeply disturbing that the President of the United States has chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists. Britain First seeks to divide communities and intimidate minorities, especially our Muslim friends and neighbours. Britain First does not share our values of tolerance and solidarity. God calls us as Christians to love our neighbour and seek the flourishing of all in our communities, societies and nations. I join the urgent call of faith groups and others for President Trump not just to remove these tweets, but to make clear his opposition to racism and hatred in all forms.”

My job, the only one that I have, is to encourage you to cast away those works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Our hope is not in fearfully pretending, but in trusting in the living God—putting on the armor of his love, his mercy, his tenderness for his people. It can be a fearful thing to give up the darkness, to face fear and to see others as they are—people, not caricatures. The temptation is to go back to that cloaking of darkness—But you know what else is fearful? Those images of judgement in the readings today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. God tears open the heaven and comes among us—those fearful behaviors won’t hide us from the appearance of the living God. “You do not know when the master will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” The judgement is terrifying only to those who think that they can protect themselves, and use the works of darkness to make themselves invulnerable.

God took the first step—doing the most amazing thing—he entered into our world—into this world at a time fully as troubled as our own—in the most vulnerable of all possible ways: as an infant, born to young parents of no power or influence, with little enough security for themselves: “in great humility…” no grand tutors or teachers, no background, position or wealth. It was that very humility, that vulnerability that Jesus had as his armor of light. For God is not about power, but about love; not about protecting what we have, but about generosity. The armor of light is not about always being right, it is about always having God’s mercy, about being a human being along with other human beings—knowing that they need mercy and that we receive mercy together.

St. Paul had Calvary Church in mind when he wrote this:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the Grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord…God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Lord, when was it that we saw you?

A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 26, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…

Today is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is often called the Feast of Christ the King and it is indeed the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. Funny thing about that though—the King we celebrate is powerless. He has no wealth, no army, he doesn’t even have much influence with the powerful or the wealthy. How does this king rule? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger…”

Jesus is a stranger…in this world of ours he doesn’t fit in. Certainly not with those who make it clear that people are to be judged as good people based on their success in making money and fitting in with the “right kind of people.” Jesus was all about hospitality, about welcoming people and attending to their needs. And plenty of the people he welcomed and feasted with, were one way or another the wrong kinds of people: tax collectors, sinners, women accused of being prostitutes—even those Samaritans, that ethnic group that was just a little bit on the wrong side of the religious and ethnic divide from Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

So this stranger Jesus is the King we celebrate. But not a foreign king like Alexander the Great, the Greek who conquered the world, or Augustus, the Roman emperor who ruled the world up to Jesus’ time. Jesus is strange because power, prestige and control are not what he’s about.

The image he presents in the Gospel reading today is this:

The judgment day is presented, and the Son of Man is standing on the plain with all the angels, sorting out people just the way

that everybody knew a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats into separate groups, treating each species according to its own needs and nature.

I read it this way: After it’s all over, after the course of life is run, we’ll just see. The Son of Man comes in glory to invite his people in. It is really the invitation that he has been giving us all along, and the kingdom is not so much different as we have right now, truth be told. It’s just hard to see it sometimes amidst our anxiety and worry—perhaps it’s difficult to see the kingdom while we ourselves are busy producing the problems that the Kingdom of God heals. But Jesus is here.

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Calvary’s Good Shepherds who work with Mother Ann to visit and care for the sick and shut-ins of our community. Our youth group gathers together to support one another and to reach out for the good of others—today they are putting up the Angel Tree, which gives us an opportunity in cooperation with Readington Township Social Services to give gifts and convey caring and hope to people who are having a difficult time and perhaps not seeing so much brightness in the coming season. Our parishioners share the joy of Christ’s love with our community in hosting Halloween Trick or Treaters and having a float in the Christmas Parade. This Friday some of us will take warm hats and scarves as well as needed toiletries and supplies to the Seaman’s Church Institute to give to merchant sailors who are far from home and often quite isolated. And our Way of St. Paul Group is working hard on listening to one another and all of you in the congregation—in helping us work on ways to foster deeper connection among us and to discern more clearly where God is leading us together.

This story about the sheep and the goats might tempt some to try to keep score: how many times did I help the needy? How many times did I fail to see Jesus? But Jesus’ teaching is not about keeping score. It’s about character. What sort of people are we becoming? You notice that both groups—both the blessed and the accursed—are surprised by their status. The reason for this is not because it is some sort of secret magical trick meant to keep us on edge. The blessed don’t know because it has become so much of their character to respond with generosity and respect to everyone—particularly those who are hungry or thirsty or alone—that it doesn’t even occur to them to do it any other way. And the accursed, their character becomes so defensive and self-centered, that they are surprised that everybody else doesn’t do it like them. “Oh, I’m sure I fed the hungry somehow—didn’t I have that on my schedule in between my spa treatment and foreclosing on those mortgages?”

When the habits of Jesus’ love for us become the habits of our hearts, we are indeed blessed. When we actually look and see what others need, and offer them in generosity that cup of cool water, or that helping hand, it builds us up inside. Our reverence for God’s people builds reverence for God, and it is in God that we live in joy.

As St. Paul said in the Epistle to the Ephesians today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you…

May we all rejoice as we live in the power of the humility of Christ our King.

So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

A Great Multitude


A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we observe the feast of All Saints with the baptism of two new saints. In popular parlance, the term “saint” refers to some sort of religious superhero. But that’s not how the Scriptures describe the saints, and I think it is a mistake when the church looks at its saints that way. The word “saint” means holy—that’s its entire meaning both in Latin and Greek. A person is holy because they belong to God—and our reading from the book of Revelation shows a throng of saints, the holy people of God, more than anyone can count—all kinds of people, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages—every sort and category of person: all holy and blessed and beloved of God.

The saints we remember are ordinary people, in whose lives some memorable things happened that illustrate the Christian life. Martyrs are ordinary Christians, who in the course of doing what Christians do, had a really bad day.

“They have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white.” “A great multitude that no one could count…”

The image of the people of God—all of them holy, all of them saints. We here are among saints, people blessed and loved by God. We heard it from George last week—of being enfolded and nourished by the love of God in this place by the Body of Christ, which is to say: You.

This week I heard from a friend whose birthday happens to be on November 1, All Saints Day.  Thirty-seven years ago, I met him and his wife Ruth and their two eldest daughters when we were next-door neighbors during my last year of seminary. Sebastian wrote to say that Ruth died of cancer last month.

Ruth Bakare

Sebastian and Ruth spent their lives serving the church and people of Zimbabwe, courageously standing for justice and the poor. Ruth was president of the Mothers’ Union, and undertook projects for the education and wellness of girls and women in places where those things were hard to come by. Sebastian was Bishop of Manicaland and Acting Bishop of Harare, speaking for the church in a time of great conflict in his country. He told me that one time, while preparing the Eucharist at All Saints Cathedral in Harare, he went to the altar rail and said to riot police that had lined up there, “I am in your hands.” They walked away, and the congregation celebrated the Supper of the Lord.

We never know what will next occur in our Christian life, and in Sebastian and Ruth, I have known friends who calmly and confidently lived in God’s compassion, whatever came. Living a life of generosity and caring for others gave them joy, a joy Sebastian continues to share with his three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. We gather with them in Thanksgiving for God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and known in the love of all God’s Saints.

There are stories like this in our own community. In our church and in our towns, the saints who have been among us and who continue still. The wonderful thing about this time of discernment at Calvary is that now is the time we can pause and listen to those stories.

This morning, Flynn and Grant are presented for baptism into this Body of Christ.  They are our youngest saints, incorporated into the witness of Christ. They are loved by God, more than any of us here love them—even more than their mothers and fathers love them—and I say that, having seen how precious these two children are to Sarah and Andre and to Kate and Frank. God loves each of us more than we can love ourselves. In a few minutes, we will join in committing to support Grant, Flynn, their parents and godparents in seeing that they are brought up in the Christian faith and life, in renouncing the forces of evil in this world, in affirming and holding the faith of the church, serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In other words, as a Christian community we are accountable to God and to one another for living and growing together. We are accountable to Grant and Flynn for being the community in which God’s love is concrete in our time and place. Flynn and Grant will likely live to see the end of the twenty-first century and the church will still be here, witnessing to the love of Christ, not because we are smart or efficient, but because God continues to love God’s people. There is no doubt that life will continue to be complex, that there will be doubts and discouragements. There is no saint that does not have doubts and discouragements—the wonderful thing about the saints is that they are real people, living in our real challenging and complex world.

With all the saints, we celebrate the God of Life—God who is the beginning and the end is not about death, but about life that is not stopped or defeated by those powers of evil and hurt that distract us. When we see and know and remember the saints, they affirm life and do not fear the powers that bring death. As my friend Sebastian said, “I am in your hands.”

We join with all the saints in the feast of life—if anyone is discouraged, or fearful, or confused, rejoice—that shows that you are a real person like the real saints. Rejoice that we have life to give, and we can live it for the new Christians in our midst—our love and accountability to Grant and Flynn is a gift from God, both the sign and the medium of our inclusion in the Resurrection of Christ.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the One who is seated on the Throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

It is fairly common for Christians to think because Jesus says this in a controversy with the Pharisees, that he came up with it, or at least that he was saying something that they disagreed with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ answer was from the scriptural text that is most important to all Jews, and certainly the Pharisees. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, it is known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus is telling these figures of the religious establishment that he fully shares and agrees with the most essential point of their belief: that it is God and God alone that deserves reverence and obedience.  In fact, in the Gospel of Luke, a young lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and it is the lawyer who tells Jesus exactly the words that Jesus repeats to the Pharisees. It’s not complicated, it’s not secret, it’s not innovative—it’s just very serious business.

In Luke, the young lawyer tries to justify himself, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. You’ll have to wait until that text comes up for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, however.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Act like you love the Lord with all your heart” or “be really showy with how pious you are” or “tell everybody if they don’t believe and act just like you do that they will be damned to hell.” The command is to live in God’s love—always—at all times and in all ways. Most people have a god that is far too small, a mascot god that does what they want, makes them comfortable, helps them feel justified in however they do things. That is not the One God of Scripture. The true and only God is no one’s mascot. I once calculated approximately how far a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled in the 13 billion years since the Big Bang—80 sextillion miles and change. All of that distance, in all directions, could fit in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love is likewise infinite and it is not subject to manipulation—by magic, or self-serving rhetoric, or use of power over others, or by any attempt to turn the Gospel upside down.

We like to duck out of our responsibility to the one God, who created everything that is and who loves even the poorest of god’s creatures, and find some kind of religious expression that will confirm our prejudices and privileges. It’s always a temptation. Jesus came to hold people to the truth—I think that is what is behind his question at the end of this lesson about the Messiah—the Pharisees were looking back at an idea of the Kingdom of God based on David the monarch of Israel from a thousand years before—Jesus says the Kingdom of God is infinitely more. Ultimately, Jesus speaking the truth and meaning it resulted in the discomfort that led to his crucifixion.

That seems like a big jump, but it’s not. Because it is not a matter of words or philosophies and discussion groups. The problem was Jesus really meant it and held people accountable to loving God in their lives and actions.

It was not a controversial or unusual thing to continue his quote from the Shema with his next sentence: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That quote comes from the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus, which lays out how the holy people of God are supposed to behave. Thus, it interprets what it is to love God with all your heart in terms of a person’s behavior. Loving other people and valuing their welfare every bit as much as you value your own is living the love of God.  The God of heaven and earth leads us beyond what is good for us and into what is good. Abundant life is life for others, living in generosity, living in God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength. Living this way is not a matter of being more religious or better than the ordinary—actually it is very ordinary and it isn’t optional at all.  Being connected in love is what gives life—it is redirecting concern toward maintaining ourselves or our own community that causes life to shrivel.

At Calvary, we have the opportunity to live for others. Some of us walked last week in the CROP walk up in Clinton. Some of us will give contributions today for the relief of those affected by recent natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and California. Over the next months we will have the opportunity to reflect on how our lives, our life together and our individual lives in the world of work and community, affect the well-being of others and how we can grow in compassion.

Let us pray once more our Collect for today:

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

 

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Philippi from prison. The word that is translated here as “Rejoice,” is Chairete. There is a footnote in my Bible which says it could also mean “Farewell.” It is a word that was frequently used for a greeting – it means joy, but also connotes peace, quite similar in usage to the Hebrew word Shalom. As Paul reaches this last section of the letter where he sums up and bids his farewell, he emphasizes it, like, “Farewell in the Lord, but I mean, really, Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices in this community which he came to love long before and in the love of God. He rejoices in the ability to live for others and to encourage the Philippians, and he encourages the Philippians to rejoice, not in what they have received for themselves, not in any comfort or material well-being, but in their ability to serve and give to others.

Some of the most encouraging and inspiring Christian writings have come from pastors who were imprisoned. In the twentieth century Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The notable thing about these writings from faithful pastors is that they don’t dwell or focus on their own plight, or even how God might be doing something for them, or how they feel about things. Rather their perspective of concern for their correspondents on the outside emphasizes God’s call. In the case of Dr. King, he was reminding his fellow pastors of God’s call to justice and compassion for those who were oppressed by unjust laws; in the case of Bonhoeffer he was sending encouragement to family, friends and colleagues in the ministry for them to have courage and hope in the midst of the Nazi terror and the raging war around them. Near the end of Dr. King’s letter he writes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

St. Paul gives thanks for the ministries of two women in the congregation, women who had struggled along with him in his work—he encouraged them to continue steadfast and enjoined the congregation to support them in that. He rejoices in the opportunity to serve, and to see the service that others extend to others in the love of God. Knowing his perspective was from prison made his words of thanksgiving and encouragement all the more potent, for he was not serving himself, but the Kingdom of God.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek word meaning “gentleness” refers to flexibility and reasonableness, the opposite of rigidity or harshness—everyone should know that when they approach you, you will be humble and listen.  Paul is not saying this to showcase people who are naturally gentle, but rather to remind each of us that our interactions with one another require flexibility from the outset and at all times.

Then he says, “the Lord is near, do not worry about anything.”  Usually when somebody says that, the smart and worldly answer is, “Easy for you to say.”  This is one of the things about letters from prison. That cynical, discouraged and often argument-winning remark comes up short against the reality of what it means to be in prison. We don’t know whether it was at the end of this imprisonment or some later imprisonment that Paul was beheaded.  When he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he means it, and he’s not whistling in the dark. He’s not talking about ignoring his chains or our situation. He’s not talking about giving up on planning or concern about the realities of finances, of expenses or of revenue. What St. Paul is saying is exactly what is not easy to say: the outcomes of our planning, and the vagaries of human existence may not be what we envision, and our comfort may be intruded upon, but God remains present and his mercy is with us—encouraging us in our gentleness of spirit to rejoice rather than to worry.  It is not that our physical wellbeing and our presence in this world does not matter—Paul encourages all of our desires and needs and concerns to be expressed in prayer to God. But note, each of those prayers is to be with thanksgiving, thanksgiving that Paul gives for the generous and helping spirit of his congregation, of their concern beyond themselves.

As we are bound in the network of prayer into the body of God’s love we discover the peace of God. That peace is not from material security—it is the peace that comes from the prison, whether it is in Birmingham, Berlin, or Ephesus—the peace of rejoicing in the generosity of God known in the love and generosity of God’s people.

Here at Calvary, we live in God’s generosity–on Friday we shared in the fellowship of the Oktoberfest celebration. We encourage one another in our ministries in our everyday lives, as we all grow into the compassion of God in Jesus. We will soon celebrate the love of our neighborhood children on Halloween and then the following Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we will baptize Flynn and Grant, affirming our own baptisms for the sake of their Christian lives going forward. We have much to rejoice about.  Primarily it is that peace of God, that Shalom of God, which surpasses anything we can understand, figure out or worry about—it is that peace that guards our hearts and gives us opportunity to rejoice.  Let us listen to Paul’s final words of farewell, that is, rejoicing—you can see that in the farewell is the beginning of an ongoing path of abundant life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.