Month: November 2014

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down

A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Tear open the heavens

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.
Sometimes we know we experience this disruption that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. We have losses and things look dark—at Trinity over the last couple of months, we know that well, losing both Fr. Allen and Keith at nearly the same time. But Jesus also talks about “the powers in the heavens” being shaken at the coming of the Lord. I have never seen anything about Jesus that was superstitious at all—powers and principalities are real, they are spiritual forces that have an effect on us, but they are not ghosts or goblins, rather they are feelings and relationships that go way beyond individuals or even existing organizations.

The powers can be very good or positive: a spirit of generosity that might characterize a whole family, or the spirit of respect that I’ve experienced here at Trinity. But powers can be very large and very negative. In our country there is a power of fear—fear of losing status or comfort— that is very pervasive. It is not so much about individuals as it something more widespread. And fear is the foundation of anger and that anger can lead to hate. Most of the time we are not aware of these powers around us, they are more like the ocean that fish swim in. The fish are not aware of the ocean or the water, it is their world.

When I read the account of the policeman in Ferguson, Missouri who shot Michael Brown, what I see is anger and fear. I know a bit about police work, and it was very poor police work, but mostly a man motivated by fear that he covered up with display of force. But that force is not the power we are talking about, the power is the fear that is shared by all those who control the body politic in Missouri. If you look to individuals, you usually cannot see it, but in that town where the racial composition has shifted in a short period of time, that spiritual power of fear has been shaken and awakened, and it is tragically not surprising that the court system, the political system and the law enforcement system have been in agreement to defend themselves and to protect that fear—to lose that power would be to lose self and security.

When the living God comes, the powers in the heavens will be shaken. That baby we’re looking forward to, the powerless little kid, his coming into the world disrupts all of these powers, these ways of being and doing things that we simply get used to. That’s why they killed him of course. But God raised him from the dead, because God is the God of justice and of life. God disrupts those principalities and powers—frightening things happen—but life also breaks in.

In this season of Advent we get ready for that life, real life in the real world. I have no quick solutions for the real problems of this world, or even of this one parish church in this one place. But I know that God is here for us, to cast out our fear. I know that the Epistle lesson from First Corinthians today is addressed to this place, and to the spirit of Trinity Church of Morrisania:

“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.”


Ministry of the Baptized

Just reblogging this because I really like it and really think it’s important. Robert Gallagher & company at Congregational Development did this. They quote a parish website that puts this well:

Here’s a clear statement –“the first and most important avenue of ministry for any baptized Christian is their daily life and work. What they do and say in their homes, at the work, and in their leisure. In addition to that, God calls each baptized Christian to take his or her place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” -from St. John’s Church, Grand Haven, MI

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… The Feast of Christ the King

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, November 23, 2014

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…
Today is the Feast of Christ the King 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.

Sheep and GoatsI 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. I certainly saw him here Friday night—not sneaking out the back door taking Keith away, but in welcoming us and respecting us—and dwelling here with Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania even as we continue to learn to respect and welcome one another, and to welcome those beautiful students who learn to make beautiful and meaningful ceramics in our basement, as we witness Jesus’ love in this neighborhood and in all the world.

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.

What Bishop Dietsche says at confirmation

On Saturday November 15, 2014 Bishop Andrew Dietsche made his annual address to the convention of the Diocese of New York.  The full text of his address can be read here : and the video is also on that website.


I referred to a portion of the address in my sermon the next day in a summary fashion, but I believe that the way he said it is much deeper and more challenging and points us all to the responsibility that we all have in this world. Just what every person taking responsibility for her or his baptismal vows should hear.

So here is an excerpt from near the end of Bishop Dietsche’s address:

Most Sundays I have the honor of receiving candidates for confirmation. Sometimes one or two and sometimes a host of them. When I meet with them before the sacrament, I tell them all the same thing. I tell them that I believe that in a broken and violent world, a world in which the ways people hurt other people and break people down and divide people are myriad, it is the responsibility of every person — not just every Christian or every person of faith, but every person — to find a way to tell the world what they stand for. That everyone has an obligation to stand before their community, their world and whatever higher purpose animates their souls, and declare that they will not part of those forces of destruction. That they refuse to bend their lives to that violence, that contempt. That they will not join themselves to that which corrupts and destroys. Rather, they will embrace principles that endure and things that matter, and make and nurture communities of character. I tell them that I believe that every person in the world has an obligation to let the rest of us know that they can be counted on. That they can be trusted. I tell them that every person has this responsibility, but that the way we do that as Christians is by baptism. By promises made and promises kept. And by conforming our lives, and the things that we think about, and the things we do, to our beautiful Jesus.

I tell them these things, because I worry that the greatest risk to the church and the Christian enterprise is our temptation to ask too little of ourselves and our communities. It is easy to make doing church a small thing, and to think that being a Christian is nobody’s business but our own. So how we live into this adventurous, heroic life together, across three boroughs and seven counties, rich and poor, strong and weak, of every color and a dozen languages, and how we demonstrate this to the world about us and make a difference in the place where God has put us on the day God has put us there is the strategic plan. And if it’s not, then why in the world would we care about it? Two years ago when I spoke to you for the first time I said that all I want is the Kingdom of Heaven. And I said that if I couldn’t have the Kingdom of Heaven then I don’t want anything else. I got a glimpse of it last night when I read the things you said to me. And it turned me on. Amen.

Hilda of Whitby

A Sermon at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, General Theological Seminary

November 18, 2014

A little over nine years ago, my daughter Maggie finished her degree at the Early Music Institute at Indiana University and moved in with us to get her start in the New York music scene. This led to a family decision to get a dog, and at the end of September Maggie and Paula went to New Jersey and came back with the cutest little bulldog puppy, all white with a large red-brown patch on the left side of her face. When I got home that evening, Maggie said, “This is Hilda.” And I said, “Hilda of Whitby?” Maggie scowled, and said, “Of course not, she’s named after Hildegarde von Bingen.” I should have known, because Hildegarde was a twelfth century abbess, who among other great achievements, is known as a composer of beautiful music, some of which Maggie had sung in recital.

Hilda - Abbess elect of Chelsea Square- will model her service on both Hildegarde von Bingen and Hilda of Whitby

Hilda – Abbess elect of Chelsea Square- will model her service on both Hildegarde von Bingen and Hilda of Whitby

Since then, I’ve often hoped that Hilda would be installed to her rightful place as Abbess of Chelsea Square on the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen on September 17, but we have never quite gotten that together. It’s all right though, because Hilda makes it quite clear that she owns the place.
But today we celebrate a different Hilda. Hilda was an abbess, but she lived five centuries before Hildegarde. She was born in the early six hundreds in Northumbria—which was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom encompassing much of northeast England and Southeast Scotland. Hilda was part of the royal family of Northumbria, which is important, because women of the uppermost classes were much more likely to have opportunity for some education and their standing made it conceivable that they could exercise influence and perhaps undertake an important project.

This was the early middle ages, but no one then knew that they were in the middle of anything. The Roman empire was no longer functioning in the West, but there was still a Roman Emperor, he just lived in Constantinople—basically a world away. The church into which the Anglian Hilda was baptized as a thirteen-year old was that of the Celtic missions. We can get all sappy about Celtic Christianity, and make it over into something else for our own sentimental purposes, fantasizing that it was some ideal, affirming, democratic, nature religion or something like that. But that won’t help to understand Hilda or the serious issues that she and the Christianities of Britain faced at that time.

Britain was always at the edge of the Roman Empire, and thus the church had not really become established there as it was in Italy or Turkey during the later Roman Empire. The church that emerged in the North of Britain, after the withdrawal of Roman governance and the gradual invasion of pagan Germanic tribes, was the result of the monastic missionaries, whose strongest centers were in Ireland, Scotland and some small offshore islands. Instead of the model of church that arose inside the structures of governance of the empire where the chief pastor of a town or city was the primary leader, the Celtic churches, which took their origins from British churches pushed westwards during the mainly pagan invasions, developed on a model in which the missionaries were often the head of monastic communities, or were sent out from established monasteries. As a result, the structure, the feel, and the lines of accountability in areas christianized by these missionaries were quite different from the model developing in the areas that had been more securely and for a greater time within the cultural and political influence and protection of the Roman Empire.

Hilda was the founder and abbess of an important double monastery , that is to say, a religious establishment where both men and women were in the community, living in separate houses but worshiping in the same chapel. Was she a missionary and authoritative leader? Yes. Was this the lost time when women and men were equal and patriarchy was set aside? No. Double monasteries were often headed by women, because they were essentially founded for women’s ministry and in those times and remote places, there was a need for men to work in the fields, to scare off robbers and to be priests for the sacraments, since it never occurred to anyone in the seventh century that women should be priests. On the European continent, these men were often retainers who lived just outside the community, but in Hilda’s foundation and others in England, they were a full part of the community.

Hilda was a leader who respected and encouraged all the people in her community. A number of the men of the monastery became bishops. We have records of those important people. Others also developed as priests, poets, artists, administrators. Caedmon, one of the greatest of early Anglo-Saxon poets, was a servant or a shepherd for the monastery, and Hilda heard his voice and encouraged him to become a monk and devote himself to developing and singing his poetry.

There was a great controversy in England while Hilda was abbess at Whitby. It is called the Paschal Controversy, because the issue that gets the most attention was differences in the dating of Easter. It is often not understood well by modern Christians, because the real differences were not about any major doctrine, or about the validity of any bishops. One of the difficulties in understanding this is that the main source about Hilda and about the Paschal Controversy is Bede. And Bede was a major advocate for Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent to England from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great and represented the views of those who wished to conform to the use of the political, religious and cultural center of Rome. Bede never questions Hilda’s holiness and he was a good enough historian to record that she opposed the Roman views, but without a full appreciation of the position of the Celtic Christians which Hilda espoused.

As we live here together in this chapel, we can get a bit of an idea of the significance of times, spaces, ways of dress and structures of relating with one another. The Celtic missions were derived from monastic practice. Even the churches in the towns related back to bishops who were monks or bishops whose cathedrals were founded by monks. The relationships were not strictly hierarchical nor based on Roman territorial provinces or dioceses because the relationships were based on the organic growth of missions in the absence of such imperial structures, coming from monasteries with overlapping areas of influence.

The Roman mission in the south and its political and religious supporters was much more interested in rationalizing and regularizing practice. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s patron, Gregory, was really the one who started the Papacy on the way to becoming the centralized authority in the Western Church as we know it to this day. The local, Northumbrian controversy about the date of the celebration of Easter became very heated and troublesome—the disagreement was not merely about the dating of a festival, but about the entire fabric of living and working together. The two observances were overlapping and sometimes families, even royal families, were joined by marriage and observed conflicting days for Easter as well as the other differences that came from two divergent ecclesiologies.

Hilda’s monastery was the place where all the power brokers gathered to work out a solution. Hilda was one of the strong advocates for the Celtic position at this Synod of Whitby. After debate King Oswy of Northumbria definitively accepted the Roman position, which had the authority of St. Peter and which made it possible to have better relations with the kingdoms to the south. Much is often made of Bede’s assertion that Hilda accepted the decisions of the Synod of Whitby. She certainly accepted the facts on the ground and authority of the king. Yet what she really did was to continue to attend to her community, to develop faithful and dedicated women and men and to continue the mission of Whitby.

Hers was a disrupted time. And we should attend to the fact that there was more than one model of the church being brought forward. It is not at all clear that the system that carried the day in Northumbria in 664, was necessarily the best system simply because it won and was implemented, or that decisions that were advantageous at the beginning of the Middle Ages remain useful in the 21st century. We are in a similarly disrupted time. The church of the future will not be the church of the past, and the missionary strategies that will work in the years to come cannot simply be pounding harder on the strategies that haven’t worked very well for the past 40 or fifty years.

In our Epistle lesson today, Paul says this: I, Paul, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love… (Eph 4:1-2)

This would describe Hilda of Whitby and her mission strategy. I would suggest that we, too, as a church should start our outreach to the world by living a life worthy of our calling, with deep humility and gentleness. Being patient and bearing with one another—the world needs deep honesty, authenticity and humility—and we know that we won’t reach any of the millions who have walked away from the church without all three of those.

I will search Jerusalem with lamps

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York, November 16, 2014

“I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste…”

The prophet Zephaniah speaks these harsh words to the people of Jerusalem. It’s a fearful prospect, and if I were to read more of it, it only gets scarier. Why? Why are these harsh words of God brought to these people? Because they have no hope in the living God. –‘Maybe God’s out there,’ they think, ‘but he won’t do any good.’ ‘And we are way too modern and sophisticated to believe that there is any possibility that God will do any harm, either.’Destruction of Jerusalem

The church has relied too much on its own niceness, especially in the last hundred years or so. As if having a nice institution with nice people and nice leaders would be enough to address the evil that is in this world:

Not knowing whether our children will be safe, and be able to have a decent education and basic medical care; people accumulating obscene wealth without any idea that they have a responsibility to use their privilege to build up the common good; and many other examples we can all cite where people disguise self-interest as virtue.

The church can’t glibly claim to be the solution to these things—our culture has called our bluff on that—the institution often acts worse than its secular counterparts, or at least as bad—very few accord the benefit of the doubt or even privilege of special moral status to the church that once was common. And stories of clergy being cheats, charlatans and abusers have become so common that no particular trust is given to clergy or their moral authority by the mass of people today.

The church on its own, as an organization is impotent in dealing with the evil of our day—especially when we “rest complacently on our dregs” not really believing that God can do good or do harm. God is alive, and is not responsible for doing what we tell him to do. God is free and dangerous—and it is in that danger that we have the only source of love or hope. The judgment of God is for the poor and the oppressed, and is very dangerous for the complacent or those who give in to their fear.

In the Gospel lesson today, we have the parable of the talents. I hate to disappoint you but this is not about either investments or fundraising. The amount of money involved is absurd—ten talents was enough money to keep an army in the field for a campaign. The first two slaves were praised and rewarded for shrewdly and confidently using the funds entrusted to them to get more for their master. But the focus is on the third—what happened here? The third was afraid of the future. He took the resources and basically wasted them by hiding them away. He is a pitiful figure of hopelessness, and in that hopelessness his worst fears were realized. Jesus brings us the Kingdom of God—and in that we live a life filled with hope—and the reason for that is that God is alive and will do us good—even if it is not what we put on our order sheet.

Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, Bishop Dietsche shared with us what he shares with every confirmation class. It goes something like this: In this world in which there is so much violence and hatred and selfishness, every human being has the responsibility to make it known where they stand and how they will address these things. And for Christians, the place where we stand together is the promises we make in baptism and for which we take responsibility in Confirmation. We renounce the evil powers that distort our lives and lead to hatred and destruction of God’s people, God’s creatures and God’s creation. We turn to Christ and put our trust in his grace and love. And in the living God we affirm one another in the apostles teaching and fellowship which is the Church.

This weekend, another beloved brother has died. Keith Warren passed away, after a long illness on Friday. I was told at convention by Theodora Brooks, another priest in the Bronx, and we prayed for him when we heard.

Let us pray.

Into your hands, O merciful savior, we commend your servant Keith. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen

“When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them…”

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY  – November 9, 2014

Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ parables. One important thing to remember about parables is that they are not allegories, they are stories. An allegory has the form of a story, but each element of it refers to a particular thing outside the story—in other words that there is sort of a code and if you figure it out, you know who the bridegroom is, or who the wise bridesmaids are, what the lamps represent, and so forth. That kind of interpretation of Jesus’ stories can end up being misleading. Jesus’ parables are stories that deserve to be heard as they are without presuming any key to interpreting them.
The story starts, “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In the ancient world, in ancient Palestine, a wedding was the biggest event that most people ever attended. The Yankees weren’t winning the World Series with the big after-party or ticker-tape parade. The coronations of the Roman emperors or their triumphal entries after winning wars took place way across the sea in a city that was, for the most part, known only by legend and imagination. And, truth be told, only a very few of the ordinary rural folk ever really made it to Jerusalem for the observance of Passover or any other major festival. In a local village, a wedding was huge. It involved virtually everyone. It was the best news and the most hopeful thing that anyone ever had in those places and at those times. I venture that this was the case, perhaps especially, in the less lavish weddings of humble people with few resources for throwing a huge party. Being a bridesmaid was a huge and important honor. And these ten young ladies are there to welcome the star of the show, make ready, and get the festivities started. (I realize that nowadays the bride is, rightly, the star of the show and indeed the bride’s role may have been equally important back then, but this story centers around the bridegroom.)

So this is a big deal, and welcoming the bridegroom is a big deal. So you have ten bridesmaids, and in among all the bustle of getting dressed up right and being ready, five of them thought, well maybe we should have some extra oil with us for our lamps in case things get delayed. Apparently the other five said, oh, there’s a big hurry and he’s supposed to be here in half an hour, this lamp will do, help me fix my hair.
Sometimes we expect things to happen on a schedule that doesn’t quite work out, for whatever reason. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was working at Union Theological Seminary, one of our doctoral students was the pastor of a church in the northern part of the Bronx, I forget which neighborhood. And she got married, a wonderful woman to a wonderful guy, and the wedding was at the church where she was the pastor. The wedding was scheduled for 2 pm and the church was packed by ten minutes before. I was sitting on a window ledge with my kids. And the word filtered out a while later that there was a little delay with the bride’s arrival. And hymns were sung and love was shared. And more hymns were sung. At 4:15 we got word that the bride was soon to arrive. The wedding took place and we all rejoiced, though the bride was two and a half hours late to her own wedding at her own church.

So, it’s not such an inconceivable thing that a bridegroom might be delayed, in the real world as a well as in story. And as little control as I had over my friend and doctoral student, how much less control do we have over God and God’s timelines, especially when the expectations we have of God don’t come from an engraved wedding invitation but from our own imagination and interpretation of ambiguous signs?
So the story of the bridesmaids continues. And remember this is a story, not an allegory, and there is nothing in here saying that any of this is rules or judgments by God or Jesus or anything. We have the wise bridesmaids and the thoughtless bridesmaids. And the thoughtless ones are the ones who said, yeahyeahyeah, oil, let’s take care of what I’m interested in first. And we reach the critical point in the story, and these thoughtless girls suddenly realize they need more oil and they turn to their friends: “Oh poor me, give me some oil.” What do you think the thoughtful girls are going to say? Of course they are going to say—“uh uh. No way. Go get your own oil.”Bridesmaids What were these foolish bridesmaids thinking? Oh yeah, they were foolish, they weren’t thinking.
The kingdom of God is here and is coming, we do not know the hour when we need to be ready. At every hour we need to be thoughtful, ready to celebrate with the joyful and ready to mourn with those who mourn. This living business, especially abundant and joyful living, is not about us, it is about reaching out and respecting others, realizing the possibilities of loving for God’s sake in our lives. We might get frustrated, when the things we hope for don’t happen on our schedule, or when the things that happen are not what we wanted at all. But God has great things for us, we just make sure that we remember to keep a supply of oil for our lamps at hand.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014 – Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.
The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching called the Sermon on the Mount and this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.
So why does it start ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit?’ Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.

TrinityMorrisaniaAnd yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we have real mourning, for people who have meant much to us. This community lost someone very important just yesterday. Paula Roberts informed me that Fr. Allen Newman died yesterday morning. After seven years of faithful service and just a month of retirement Allen died of a severe illness for which he had been in treatment for a year. We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.
When Jesus says Blessed are the meek, we need to know that that word “meek” has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s kingdom. It’s only the meek and humble that can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.
And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.
Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you just do, by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.
Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.
So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.
Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.
But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?
I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”
Among those saints is Allen Newman, our brother and faithful priest.

Let us pray.
Father of all, we pray to you for Allen, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let Light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of humanity; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. (BCP p. 499, Hymnal 355)