Month: December 2014

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

A sermon for New Year’s Eve – Feast of the Holy Name

Trinity Church of Morrisania       Bronx, New York        December 31, 2014

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

In Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, three times it says that Mary pondered or treasured these things: when the angel showed up and she was perplexed, Young_Shepherd_-_Flickr_-_edbrambleywhen the shepherds arrived and told her that the angel had said that this baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, is the Messiah, the Lord, and later, when the boy Jesus was found in the temple, teaching, and they went back home to Nazareth.

These were strange events for a young mother; they wouldn’t fit into anything that she had been prepared for. She pondered them, she turned them over in her mind. These terms, “Savior”, “Messiah,” “Great,” “called the Son of the Most High,” what could they mean? It was hard enough to have just a baby. All these other things, they might mean anything or nothing. Most of the time when people used that word ‘Messiah’ it meant, the king, the military leader, nothing like anyone she knew. Extraordinary things—so she pondered. There is no reason to think that Mary ever figured out the meaning of all these things surrounding her child’s birth. It was not that these things did not happen or that she was not faithful, but even having these predictions and descriptions, and angels and prophets did not make the future clear. It did not even make the present clear.

God’s love and God’s presence are real, and now; but what will happen and how it will be explained? That will take some pondering. We reach tonight the end of a year, and we reach out to the beginning of a new one. One hundred and fifty-two years ago, the year 1862 was ending and 1863 was about to begin. This country was in the midst of a bloody and bitter war. At issue was whether one person could own another as a slave, and resistance was bitter and violent, because much of the economy was based on that very premise. As a part of that war, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation called the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union were freed. It did not free all the slaves, in fact it only freed the slaves in the areas where President Lincoln’s government was not in control. Yet this Proclamation carried a much greater weight of hope for the future for many people. So on New Year’s Eve, 1862, many gathered to watch and hope and pray, for a future of freedom for all of God’s people.

At the end of the year we hope, and we pray and, like Mary, we ponder. Some may have hoped that on January 1, 1863, that all the problems of slavery would be over, it would be gone and everyone would be equal and happy. Or others might have thought that the end of that war would bring those ends into being. But, as we know, more than a century and a half later, these changes were much more complicated than that. The simple changes of laws and of the legal status of persons, only made some difference. Changing the realities of human hearts, human circumstances and human history takes much more than one night or one document or even one war. It takes courage, and persistence and patience and resilience. And even then people may seem intractable and change almost imperceptible. And Mary pondered, what does this angel mean? And she knew she was blessed: “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She did not know all that was to come, but she knew the love of God.

We reach the end of this eventful year. And in our country and in our city we see the anxiety and fear and anger of many people. Sometimes those who are violent don’t even know what they are angry about—they also don’t recognize their own fear. We ponder. We ponder our own fears and all those things that affect the behavior of others, over which we have no control. And we pray for our country and our city.

We reach the end of this eventful year in this parish. We ponder what has happened among us and where God will lead us. In just the two months since I have been here, this parish has suffered the loss of Fr. Allen Newman, Keith Warren, and Jean Barthley, beloved leaders, brothers and sisters. We ponder these things and we do not know what they will mean. But as I ponder, I know that God is present here. I know that this is a place where the Gospel is lived and people are respected and welcomed. I know this because I have been welcomed and respected in very tangible ways, that have nothing to do with any office that I hold or power I might have. I see young Christians, growing in Christ, learning to become Christian adults and leaders in the faith.

We do not know what the future holds any more than Mary did. We do not know the forms and models of ministry that the next 10 or 20 years will hold for Trinity Church—as a scholar of history and a long-time priest I assure you that the models of the last 50 or 60 years were much different than what the church did in earlier times and the future will shape the church according to the faith and hope of our community. With the blessed Mother, we ponder, we treasure God’s love and we smile at the witness of those rough shepherds that came to tell those travelers lodging in the stable that their baby was the Messiah and savior of the world.

Mary pondered all the things that she had heard, and didn’t know what to do with them all. But she did remember, the name. The Angel had told her the name for her baby, and she knew what to do with that. According to the traditions of her people that baby was circumcised and given his name: Jesus.

The Holy Name of Jesus is our blessing and guide. In our Old Testament lesson, the people take on God’s name and become his by receiving the blessing of that name:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.
Amen.

“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.”

The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

December 28, 2014, Trinity  Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

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“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king (oopsnot such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–Today is also the Feast of the Holy Innocents, when King Herod sent to have all the children in the village killed to make sure he would have no competition for his rule) … or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

The image of the light shining in the darkness, would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

People are already starting to throw away their trees. Christmas is over. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.

Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.

Merry Christmas.

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them

A sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Christmas Eve December 24, 2014

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.

On Sunday, we saw a bunch of wonderful angels here. Those angels are Christians born in this century, people who will be following and proclaiming Christ, and teaching all of us as we live together into the future. They were teaching us by dressing up in angel costumes, but seeing a real angel, sent from God, that’s a rare thing indeed, and a very extraordinary experience. Before Gabriel showed up, Mary had never seen an angel. And you can bet that none of these shepherds had ever seen an angel before that night.

When I was a kid, I thought that shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in a pretty rural area, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the river, where nothing could get to the sheep and they took care of the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders. Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows.

A Sheepherder's camp

A Sheepherder’s camp

You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.

A sheepherder with his band of sheep

A sheepherder with his band of sheep

It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.
So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.

And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”

The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.

Our city and our country have been living in a lot of fear and anger, which are a result of those powers, powers which embody the fears of losing power and privilege, fears of change. Those powers, sometimes called intolerance, sometimes racism, sometimes simply the inability to see beyond our own narrow self-interest, those powers try to reach out with power and force to enforce their fear on everyone else.
But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.

And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.

Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.

She was much perplexed by his words…

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2014

She was much perplexed by his words…

Allan Rohan Crite Annunciation

Allan Rohan Crite
Annunciation

Who here has seen an angel? A real angel sent from God, not a statue or a metaphorical angel like a beautiful child? You know, until Gabriel showed up, I don’t think that Mary had either. We don’t know what the angel looked like—those wings and white robe, come out of other stories and the imagination of artists, mostly centuries later.

So what we have, is a young woman, probably a very young one: a teenager, unmarried and not in any way privileged or wealthy. A regular kid. And this Gabriel guy shows up and says, “Greetings, O highly favored one! The Lord is with you!”

 

 

“Huh?”

What else was there to say? This made no sense. ‘O, highly favored one,’ indeed, what is this guy selling? The scripture says that she was perplexed—this approach out of the blue was confusing and perhaps frightening as well. The angel continues, “Do not be afraid…” and then goes on with this stuff about her becoming pregnant and so forth. “How can this be? I’m not ready to have a child—I’m not even with a man…”
We usually think of the whole thing of the Blessed Mother as being simple and sweet, sort of a beautiful pastoral scene, and such good news to this docile young maiden. Maybe we see the renaissance paintings where we have an aristocratic young woman sitting in a beautiful garden, or a sitting room in a renaissance palace—everything peaceful, prosperous and easy. But this situation for Mary was not any simpler or easier than it is for any other young woman in a similar situation. There was plenty of insecurity and doubt—the real world impinged on her and no one could fault her if she were afraid.

“Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” That’s a bold thing to say to her in this situation. That term “Angel”: the Greek word basically means Messenger. That message that Gabriel brought her, the message of God’s favor, God’s love—it takes some seeing. It did not relieve her from poverty, it did not make people think or say nice things about her. It certainly didn’t get her out of changing diapers and putting up with all the difficulties of child rearing. And if she could see forward, thirty years or so, and see what would happen to her Son…how much pain and grief does the favor of God cost?

But in that child was life. In him was hope. In him is the resurrection from the dead right in the middle of this too real life. How much did Mary know? She was young, no evidence of great education, but she knew quite clearly the situation was in. So she listened to the angel. She heard him out. She even heard him speak about her older cousin Elizabeth: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” She knew, she heard, and she decided. And then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

When Mary went up into the hills and met Elizabeth she sang a song, which explains why she did that and what it means:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.
The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

When we watch the pageant this afternoon, remember that it is this courageous young woman who gives birth to that child who means everything to us.

He was Not the light

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York, December 14, 2014

“He was not the light…”

The Gospel lesson today is about John the Baptist. Of course he made quite a sensation out there in the wilderness. Lots of crowds, lots of disciples. John was like the rock-star prophet of first century Palestine. Even the people that his harshest criticism was aimed at came out to see him. It was quite a show, people queued up to be baptized. It was the thing to do, the place to be seen. Get baptized, that will prove that you are repentant, you’re not guilty any more of those bad things that John is talking about.

This was not exactly what John had in mind. The Gospel of Matthew quotes him saying to these people: Pieter-Bruegel-The-Younger-A-Landscape-With-Saint-John-The-Baptist-Preaching“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” One of the ways in which we falsify the Gospel is to look for human heroes, put all the responsibility on them, adulate them, then quietly slip away without taking continuing responsibility for living the life of the Gospel, of standing for justice, repenting and living courageously and humbly with our God every day. John the Baptist was having none of this. So the priests and Levites come up to him and say, “You preach pretty well … you’re really edgy … that’s quite a look … really authentic … hey, maybe you could be the Messiah? … we sort of need one of those … try on that idea, you would be a really good candidate…somebody go find some oil…”
John replies, “I am not the Messiah.”

“Oh… well, yeah, but you’ve got to be something… maybe Elijah? he was pretty cool…”

“I am not.” — “Well then maybe the Prophet? You look like a prophet after all, we could call you THE Prophet, how about that?”

“No.”

“What then, what are you, we have to have a category to put you in—after all you can’t do marketing without a brand.”

John gives a big sigh: “I’m a voice. One crying out in the wilderness, for crying out loud… ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ It is not about me, it’s about the Lord and about how you should live.”
People love to find “heroes” or “leaders” or “saints” who are going to fix things for them. Almost fifty years ago, Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With the internet and social media, that future has pretty much arrived. We go through a cycle of finding, building up and debunking heroes at a dizzying rate. Fame can be both tempting and damaging for individuals who might have their fifteen minutes, but I’m actually concerned about the other side of the question. What is the reason for the celebrity of heroes and leaders? Somehow, a celebrity, whether it is a political leader, or an actor, or a spokesperson for a group is credited with being somehow special, and having the answer for something that ordinary people somehow lack. Of course some people are more talented, or beautiful or smart than many other people. But, the step from saying that someone is really smart, or attractive or loving to believing that they have some solution to problems that you don’t have is a big step and a very dangerous one.

Those guys wanted to treat John the Baptist like he was the light, all on his own: look at John, he’s the prophet, let him baptize you and he’ll take care of everything. We want leaders of one sort or another to be our lights. But they aren’t, or at least, if we treat them as such we will become lost very quickly. How frequently do we see people blame last month’s light for their problems this month? John came to bear witness to the light, not to be the light—and he came to hold people responsible for their own actions and their own lives—thus the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—real sins, our own sins, which we are responsible for.

This Advent we look for the true light, the light of God to break into this world. But we don’t discover that light by just finding the closest shiny object. No. We listen to the testimony of John: make straight the way of the Lord—know and accept the truth of yourself and of this world. Follow no false prophet, and do not succumb to the temptation to assume anyone else can take responsibility for your life or solve your problems.

We follow God and God alone. We look for him, that small light burning in the darkness, that life so small and fragile, coming among us, to lead us in to truth by his living.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

Communion and White Fear

A More Peaceful Table

photo by Jon BehmAs demonstrations continue around the country, protesting the deaths of African American men at the hands of police, we need to talk about White fear. Like many of the posts on this blog, it may seem to have little to do with Holy Communion, but from what I can see, it has everything to do with it — at least for those of us who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus. It’s just that our practice of Holy Communion has become so impoverished that we don’t see how deeply they’re connected. White fear is a symptom of a kind of spiritual poverty that Holy Communion, as a spiritual practice, was meant to heal. The fact that it doesn’t, the fact that Holy Communion does little or nothing to reduce White fear in this country, and in many cases actually reinforces it, speaks condemnation upon the church.

If…

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Comfort, O comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“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…
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. Last Sunday, I mentioned the fear that infects this country and the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. A couple of days later, the same situation came from Staten Island. It’s enough to make you weary, and fearful.
But then what does the prophet say to those weary and fearful people?

Bishop Dietsche at Foley Square, December 4, 2014

Bishop Dietsche at Foley Square, December 4, 2014

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 someone who lashes out violently because of his own fear. 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. 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.