Month: August 2014

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph

A Sermon at St. James the Less Episcopal Church, Scarsdale, New York  August 24, 2014

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
The Old Testament lesson last week was from near the end of the book of Genesis. Joseph, who had become the chief administrator of Egypt, revealed himself to his brothers and was reconciled with them, thus bringing the imperiled family of Jacob (who was also known as Israel) to Egypt where they would live a comfortable and prosperous existence due to his patronage. This is the culmination of Genesis—God saving Israel from famine through the love of Israel’s son, the visionary and prophet Joseph.
For a long time, it looked like this was a good move that brought security and happiness. It actually was a good deal—prosperity lasted for generations, perhaps centuries. And when things get good we like to think of that state of affairs as permanent.
So we finish the book of Genesis and we move to the next volume, the book of Exodus. The first seven verses summarize that end of Genesis with a genealogy and a note: “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” All due to the heritage and good will of our brother and father Joseph.

 

Diagram of ship bringing enslaved Africans to America

Diagram of ship bringing enslaved Africans to America

Then, right as the new story opens, it reads: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Things changed in the space of one man’s life when all the things that these generations had come to count on were taken away.
Christians have lived over the last two millennia in many different circumstances. We in the United States are relatively blessed because we live without persecution, not like many Christians—or other religious groups—throughout the world.
And, as Episcopalians, we’ve had a pretty good deal going, especially in the century between the end of the civil war and the early 1960s, not unlike the Israelites in ancient Egypt. It was a common stereotype to think of us as the prosperous church of the prosperous.

Whether that was really the case or not, Episcopalians as well as other mainline Christians came to assume by the mid-twentieth century that well-appointed and well-staffed churches with well-attended programs were the norm. There was a time in the 1950s when everyone assumed that everyone would attend church somewhere. There was even a period of time, when my father, a confirmed non church-goer, was persuaded to attend church for a few weeks. I remember that the argument that convinced him to try was that he would make good contacts for his beginning insurance business. He lasted a little longer helping with the Boy Scout troop than he did attending church.
Of course, let’s be real. The American mainline churches even back then wasn’t the same for everyone. I think of my good friend from Union Theological Seminary, Professor James Melvin Washington who had a very different experience growing up as a black Baptist in Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1950s and sixties than I had growing up as an Episcopalian in Idaho at about the same time. Things haven’t changed on that score as much as we might have like to have imagined either, as we see on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and other of our cities, where people of color are still struggling against injustice.
Yet, in general, up until the 1960s, it was taken for granted that the church was a prosperous part of an ever-more prosperous America.
Then something changed. The first priest I worked for blamed it on the birth control pill. Certainly one year that parish baptized thirty infants and the next year three. Forty years ago, it was thought of as a blip, thirty years ago it was a problem. Now it’s an established reality. It is no longer assumed that all people attend church. In fact many nowadays question whether church is a good thing at all. The privileged position of the church has almost completely disappeared.
Like the prosperous Israelites living in Egypt, we have reached a time when Joseph, or whatever once formed the foundations of our prosperity, is no longer known in the society in which we live. We are not enslaved. Christians are not persecuted in this country. But the church has ceased to be the comfortable and secure solution to people’s problems that it once appeared to be. Why?
One reason is that we have not been reliable followers of Christ and thus, we are simply not convincing to the majority of people any more as they face life’s troubling questions and a still filled with terrible things: like prejudice, war, famine and disease. So how do we get back to becoming a place where people can come for answers?
In the Gospel lesson today, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus says—Yes! But as we read further it becomes clear that Peter did not appreciate at all fully what Jesus being the Messiah entailed or what life would be like as a follower of that Messiah. It is no accident that the Gospels, the book of Acts and even the letters of Paul portray Peter’s blundering: he is the real disciple in the real world struggling to find an authentic way to follow Christ, and that mostly involves blundering, mistakes, and anxiety. One could say the same of the story of Moses—there’s enough human blundering on the part of the Israelites, and even of Moses, to fill the whole Pentateuch, but especially this book of Exodus.
So how do we live now? How can we be Christ’s disciples? It is not by worrying about the church or our comfort or our lost privilege. Let’s listen to what St. Paul says today: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice… Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
We are called to be transformed, to be willing to change, not according to our fears, but by the free gift from God. Our hope is not in the past, but in Christ who leads us into the future. We have gifts that differ, but we are united in one body in Christ. We can and will live as authentic worshippers of God in each thing that we do and on every day.
Grant we beseech thee that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy name.

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After hearing these things…

Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost. St. Paul’s on the Hill, Ossining, NY

“Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

We often have ideas about what is spiritual, and then we make sure that Jesus fits those ideas.   So, the way today’s gospel reading starts off, it looks like Jesus is going on a summer retreat—quiet time, maybe a few spiritual exercises, get refreshed and relaxed.  All of these things make sense in their own way, but sometimes our ideas of the spiritual let us skip over the way spirituality works in real life.

The lesson in the lectionary starts, “Jesus withdrew…”, but the lectionary leaves out the first clause of that sentence.  It says: “After hearing these things Jesus withdrew…”  What things? What was Jesus hearing? You actually have to scramble back in your Bible a bit to find the reference. At the beginning of the chapter it says: “At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus, and he said, ‘this is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead.’  This connection gets lost because Matthew inserts here a story to explain the significance of the connection that Herod is making.  The story is, perhaps best known from the Richard Strauss opera, Salome, which created quite a scandal when it was first performed, since it featured sex, violence, incest, John the Baptist losing his head, and innovative ways of plating for a banquet. Since we think about sex and violence at other times and not on Sunday morning, we leave that part of the Bible out of the lectionary.  The Herod in question was one of several sons of Herod the Great (the Herod who reigned when Jesus was born) who were named Herod. I won’t go into the complex details of the Herod family soap opera, but when John the Baptist publicly said that his marriage was not legal or moral or right, Herod had him thrown into prison and later had him executed in exchange for a dance by his step-daughter. So if Jesus hears that this Herod is equating him with John the Baptist, there’s trouble brewing.

Owyhee ReservoirJesus gets on a boat and heads out of town. The description makes me think of some of the reservoirs in the desert where I come from.  If you get on a boat and cross the lake, you’ll end up in a place where there are no roads, no houses, no farms. He would be in a deserted place by himself, out of danger while things cooled down.  Not quite our idealized concept of a spiritual retreat. In fact it’s more like the real life that we experience, with concerns and crises, problems that need to be solved.

Somehow, the place wasn’t isolated enough, lots of people saw where he was headed and they all walked around the lake and were there when he got off the boat.  So this is the situation that Jesus and his disciples were in when the events in today’s Gospel took place.  “He had compassion for them and healed their sick.” Which, of course, is just the kind of thing that had attracted Herod’s unwanted attention, but they were sick, and needed healing.  I can just see the more practical and prudent among the disciples, thinking about the situation and saying, “Jesus. Send them. Away.” Then the argument ensues. Jesus says, “Feed them.” “We don’t have anything.” “Oh?” “Well, maybe two loaves and a couple of fish, but that’s not enough. Let them go buy their own food.”

“Bring them here to me.”

Jesus extends hospitality at a time when it is not really convenient, when good advice would be for him to save himself by avoiding these people.  And the disciples, they are trying to think of ways to save him from himself—their logic is impeccable, there isn’t enough food. And Jesus says, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.”

In the midst of all of our problems and anxieties, sometimes miracles happen.  What has been impossible is made possible through God’s welcome. Jesus didn’t let the disciples focus on the impossibility; rather he led them into hospitality.  You don’t become a hospitable person or a gracious host by waiting until you have more than enough. Those who are generous, are generous to others when they have little and when they have much. So, the disciples opened up their lunch box and Jesus gave it away. And he kept giving, and he keeps giving. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, especially if the focus is on ourselves and what we get out of it.  But Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and they all extended hospitality, and what they thought they couldn’t do, happened anyway. “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”  Twelve more baskets to give and to welcome others with.

I have found St. Paul’s to be a welcoming and giving community. You have extended hospitality to me and my wife. That foundation of hospitality is important as you move forward spiritually and as an organization.  As Jesus leads you to grow in generosity and love, don’t expect that there won’t be changes or that there won’t be miracles. It wasn’t the lack of food that made those disciples uncomfortable; it was all these extra people hanging around at a difficult time when it would be better to be inconspicuous.  Expect Jesus to have new miracles for us all.

Let’s share what’s left in those baskets.