Month: January 2013

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Trinity Church Mt. Vernon, January 27, 2013

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

If we look at the Gospel of Luke, today’s Gospel lesson occupies a very important place: Up until this point, we have what you might call background—things having to do with Jesus’ birth and childhood, John the Baptist and Jesus’ relationship with him. John baptized Jesus and Jesus was taken into the desert and tempted by the devil.

Jesus emerges from temptation and this lesson is the first thing that happens, it is the beginning of his ministry, the life that people came to know, that transformed the world. The centerpiece of this is quite simple: this young man returns to his home town and reads a lesson in his home congregation. Most congregations have an experience like that from time to time, a former youngster returns for a visit. Now this lesson is really only the first half of the story—you have to come next week for the second half—where we get a peek at how those kids feel when they come back…

This lesson is about Jesus’ character and his ministry.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That is Jesus’ life—his ministry. Good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind—What do those things refer to? They refer to people, often like you and me, whose lives involve sometimes being on the outside; not in positions of wealth and power; sometimes really suffering; perhaps even oppressed by the structures of society. Jesus has come to bring healing and freedom to all these people. But who are they? It is a mistake to regard these people as a small group that can be taken care of by alms and handouts, or on the other hand, to think that Jesus is bringing this good news to just us, and perhaps some others like us. Jesus is here for us, to lead us out of our blindness, to see ALL of his people.

You can see in the stories about Jesus that he was always extending the definition of WHO God’s people are—‘Who is my neighbor?’ Could it really be that man who is a Samaritan—a group known to be dirty, impure and our enemies? Tax collectors and other collaborators with the Roman occupying government? The Good News that Jesus brings stretches way beyond most people’s range of comfort. As soon as we accept that Jesus has brought good news for us, we are challenged because he is bringing Good News to those that we regard as outside.

I ran across an article by Derek Penwell, a minister and teacher from Kentucky—he’s reflecting on a phenomenon which he describes this way: “The fastest growing religious designation in America over the past five years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is ‘None.’” Recently the noun “Nones” (not Nuns, who are women who live in religious communities) has entered the vocabulary, at least of those who analyze contemporary religion—to refer to those who just don’t care about religion—they aren’t necessarily atheist or agnostic, but would prefer not to be associated with any religious beliefs or practices. The article is worth reading, but I want to quote one passage that really struck me: 

“Think about this for a minute, though: What if part of the reason the “Nones” are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?”

Taking Jesus seriously is less a matter of what we think, or of what we say, than of how we live our lives. Are we interested in living our lives along with this guy who brings Good News to the poor, release to captives? Are we interested in having our blindness turned to sight? Over the years, the Episcopal Church has sometimes been more interested its own internal vocabulary and self-congratulation than in welcoming anyone who doesn’t exactly match—Jesus, of course doesn’t exactly match much of anybody. His reputation was for dining with sinners, defending the oppressed, extending the love of the God of Israel to all peoples.

At some important point in our lives, most of us know this—that is really why we keep coming back, because Jesus loved us and accepted us, even when we felt rejected, even unacceptable. He invites us to a life, along with him, of Good News, of the hard work of reaching out and opening ourselves and our church to the people that he invites.

The Gospel for next week is a dose of the real world. When Jesus announced this Good News in his home town, the congregation rejected him and tried to throw him off a cliff. That’s the ordinary reaction, and we sometimes see it in the church. But I encourage you to be interested in Jesus and his life. It is not always comfortable to make common cause with this Galilean when all the culture around is interested in any other kind of life but his. He is inviting us all to live a life of welcome—to see clearly who is our neighbor—and to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor.

On the Feast of the Epiphany –King Herod and his AR-15

Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany. St. Paul’s Ossining, NY. Jan 6, 2013

“Arise, shine; for you light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Today is the feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate God coming into this world and manifesting himself to all people. The twelve days of Christmas are over and it’s time to take down the tree. We read the story of the Wise Men from the East visiting the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. It is altogether a joyful feast, a feast of light.

But if we continue to read, and pay attention to scripture something else comes out: “For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples”; that’s how the lesson from Isaiah continues—the light of God appears in a complex world full of shadows and darkness.

If we look closely at the story of the visit of the Wise Men, the main character is really King Herod. Herod the Great was a brilliant politician and ruler. He built numerous fortresses, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, and most remarkably, he was able to continue in power as a client ruler in the early Roman Empire. He had supported Mark Antony, and when Augustus defeated and killed Mark Antony, Herod convinced the new emperor that he would be the most reliable ally to rule Judea for the Roman Empire. He was always ruthless and always ruled for his personal self-interest. By the time Jesus was born, he was old; and probably paranoid—although with rulers in those days, it was a bit hard to tell, since if you thought someone was plotting to kill you, you were probably right.

Giovanni-innocents

So these astrologers arrive from Iran and ask about a newborn king. Herod is always thinking a couple of steps ahead. It’s not his heir that they are talking about. Now maybe this powerful warlord is simply jealous of a newborn who won’t be an adult until long after Herod is dead. But there is another thing to think about—Herod wasn’t exactly a nationalist leader, he wasn’t Judean and he wasn’t even Jewish by birth. He ruled by his political wiles, force of arms and the support of the Roman legions. If people started going around talking about a divinely designated King of Judea from the house of David; that could spark a nationalist uprising, and the Romans would not be happy. 

So Herod had to get to the bottom of this. When the magi gave him the slip, he didn’t give up: four verses later in the Gospel of Matthew it says, “he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.” The darkness of this story that we call the Visit of the Wise Men is the tremendous power and rage of this one man—who could at his mere command kill all the small children of the town. Nowadays we have progressed—two thousand years ago, it took someone of great power, with soldiers at his command to accomplish such an atrocity. Now, all it takes is the tremendous fear and rage and buying or taking one of the millions of semi-automatic assault weapons laying around this country, can go in and slaughter the innocents.

I grew up in the mountain West; hunting was an important part of the way of life when I was growing up. When I was a kid people believed that they were making an important addition to the family’s food, in the fall, after harvest was over. But these assault weapons, like the AR-15 that was used in Newtown, less than fifty miles from here, these weapons are not particularly good for hunting deer, since their ammunition is specially designed to rip up flesh and ruin the meat. So mostly these guns are purchased by people who don’t have anything constructive to do with them—maybe to make themselves feel a little less afraid—though it is hard to think of a defensive use for one of these weapons outside of a military situation. So the weapons sit around until someone comes along and decides to shoot off a lot of rounds. The weapons themselves and their ammunition create the probability of the eventual slaughter of innocents. The logical thing to do is to get rid of these weapons and ammunition, which is why the Bishops of the Diocese of New York have put a petition on the Diocese of New York webpage, asking for assault weapons to be banned.

The feast of the Holy Innocents in our calendar was on December 28th and the collect for that day says this: Receive we pray into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace…
This is a complicated world that we live in, and it was equally complicated when Jesus first came among us. There was darkness then; there is darkness now. But do not fear the darkness, it is the fear, as much as anything that brings about the evil. Jesus suffered the darkness and uncertainty as much as any of us, and his love is the light of the world.

“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”