Month: January 2015

For he taught them as one having authority

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany  February 1, 2015

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

As a librarian and seminary faculty member I have something in common with the scribes. We all spend a lot of time working with texts, organizing, preserving and interpreting them. The particular scribes who are referenced in this passage interpret holy texts, as I do. So they can’t be such bad guys. Indeed, that is not what it says. It was not that what the scribes taught was bad, or even that it was boring. They were astounded at Jesus’ teaching because he taught with authority, and it was a very different thing.

Let’s not be confused about this—sometimes we think of people, usually men, “speaking with authority,” and we mean that they are strong and powerful, and make everybody do what they want. As if the one with the most money, the biggest army, or the biggest muscles; the one with power; is the one who has authority. That couldn’t be farther from what the Gospel is saying here. Jesus was this guy, a stranger with no status, from a little town off in the hills. And he taught. And they were astonished. Not because he said outrageous things, or new stuff that no one had ever said before. They were astonished because when he taught, it was different from the scribes, the authority of the text came from him and not the other way around. Not that he played fast and loose with the text, but nonetheless the holy words came authentically from him. We listen to him, and we are changed.

Now this incident happened. A man stands up, spirit possessed, and says: “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Pretty disturbing. I’ve seen similar things happen sometimes. Mostly at annual parish meetings. But not here in the Bronx. The demonic spirits in this man recognized the power of Jesus and his teaching. They even described him pretty well. “You are the Holy One of God.” But somehow this man was not receiving Jesus as the bringer of Good News. “Have you come to destroy us?” By bringing the truth to that place, Jesus changed things, and that change was a big threat. That unhappy, evil spirit in that man was overcome by fear and lashed out in anger.

You see, Jesus is alive, and brings us the Kingdom of God, who is very much alive. As such, Jesus and his message are not under control. You could lose everything if you get too close to the Holy One of God. We often want God to be under our control, well behaved, and to stay in his box until we need him. We like the Bible, especially when it’s closed. But Jesus is the living word of God and speaks with authority, and that is scary. Instead of keeping God cooped up in church, only to come out on Sundays, Jesus inserts himself at home, and at work. “Have you come to destroy us?” That’s crazy. Jesus’ authority changes the way our lives run. His peace runs counter to our ordinary struggle in our lives. His honesty trips up our manipulation. Jesus disrupts our patterns.

All too frequently, the church tries to change Jesus to fit the latest fashion. In our world that admires the success of those who become extremely wealthy, there are those who say the gospel is all about prosperity, and others who say that expecting people to work for the common good is old fashioned and couldn’t have anything to do with anything Christian. Just as Jesus frightened the man possessed by demons in Capernaum, he disrupts the expectations of a church that tries to base itself on worldly patterns.

DemonRebukedJesus said, “Be quiet, come out of him.” His quiet, calm authority made things different. Of course, it wasn’t so easy. The text says the man went into convulsions and cried with a loud voice. But that spirit of fear and anger left. The man was healed.

What is this? –A new teaching! He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him! Lots of people respond to Jesus like it’s a magic show; that somehow it’s about superpowers used to control the world and impress people. But Jesus’ authority is himself. He is the Word of God, in him is compassion that disrupts all our pride and all our fear. He brings us to knowledge of God and to real love and caring for one another. As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle reading: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” It is in God with us, that we are able to live as generous and happy people.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commended his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures forever. (Psalm 111:9-10)

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Get up! Go to Nineveh

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania Bronx, New York

Third Sunday after Epiphany January 25, 2015

Get up! Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

The Gospel lesson today is about the call of the apostles—Jesus came to Peter, Andrew, James and John and said, “Follow me.” So they followed, and it all seems pretty simple and straightforward. Not much to it, really. Stop sweating, working with the nets, for hardly any return, and go out and chat with people. Of course, thinking of it this way leaves out the rest of the Gospel.

So let’s turn to our Old Testament lesson today, from the book of Jonah. When you read today’s passage, it sounds like God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh and preach and everybody repented and things were good—God calls, the prophet answers the call and things work out.

The problem is, that this is exactly NOT what the book of Jonah is about. This bit is from the middle of the story, while both the beginning and the end of the story give a very different view. The story actually goes like this: God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah’s immediate response was to head the other direction. Instead of going across the desert to Iraq, Jonah got on a boat headed to Turkey, or maybe Italy, perhaps New York. This is where the whale comes in. God was not amused by Jonah’s response, and sent a big storm, and the crew of the boat threw him overboard to keep the boat from sinking.

Jonah back on the beach

Jonah back on the beach

It worked and a big fish or whale swallowed Jonah and spewed him out back on the beach where he started. That’s where we get today’s lesson. God says it again, and Jonah trudges off to Nineveh, and walks into the huge city, and tells everyone to repent, and they take him seriously, and do it.

Fine. Except that’s not the end of the story. Jonah is very unhappy with this outcome. He had expectations. He had said that in forty days Nineveh was going to be overthrown, and that’s what he wanted to see. And if God was going to change the deal, Jonah was just going to go off and sulk. Jonah wants to die, because God is merciful to the people he wants to punish. Jonah wants God to do what he wants him to do, and be the way that Jonah thinks God should be, which oddly enough, is just like Jonah.

God, however, is a living God, who does not resemble Jonah, or me, or even you. God’s love is beyond our understanding—deeper and wider than our imagination can take in. So God calls his people, he calls his prophets, his apostles, his priests, his witnesses to the truth, mothers and fathers and children—and we think we understand that call. Peter and Andrew and James and John thought they understood when Jesus said, “Follow me.” Perhaps they even believed they knew what it meant to become fishers of people. But responding to the call to follow Jesus, works out differently than we expect, at least the first twenty or thirty times we start out. Jonah actually had a pretty good idea of what God wanted, and that’s why he took off in the opposite direction. It was not going to work out that his enemies were going to be punished and Jonah’s angry fantasy satisfied.

Not everyone’s fantasies are angry, like Jonah’s. Many times in my life, my fantasies have been more grandiose and self-centered than angry. As individuals and as a church, we have ideas and expectations that are sometimes vision of God’s kingdom and sometimes fantasies to make ourselves comfortable. God’s call to us is in the real world, and it leads us in ways that we often don’t expect. Jonah found that God’s mercy abounds, even beyond our own regions of comfort. Those first disciples also discovered the abundance of God’s mercy—it took time for them to understand that that mercy called them to go with Jesus into places that challenged them more than they imagined.

The challenge to us is to see God’s mercy right here in our real life; to give up our inclinations to tell God what to do and what he should be, and to follow Jesus in ways that might surprise us.

Give us grace, O lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 18, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!” And Nathanael’s response was… and that would be who? And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.

Murphy Idaho Airport

Murphy Idaho Airport

Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.

Philip says, “Come and see.”

One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.

When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears that sounds pretty, pastoral, and figs taste good. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.

Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” In that mercy of God, things are so transformed that Jacob will not need his tricks, or guile or deceit.

We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be. Here at this time, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus finds this person, who is seeking the truth, without varnish or tricks. “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!” But even so, Jesus doesn’t just slap him on the back and welcome him to the bandwagon. These titles: Son of God and King of Israel, are titles of the messiah, but they are titles of the messiah as Nathanael expected—the purification of Israel and Jerusalem, freeing that land of its guilt. But Jesus says to him, “It’s not just under your fig tree, there is much more.” Jesus loved Nathanael. He did not say he was wrong—but he challenged him to see much more.

This weekend we remember a man who responded to Jesus’ challenge. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. And he allowed God to shape that experience into a vision of hope and peace that others could not perceive or expect.

Jesus has much more for us. More than Nathanael saw, and more than any of us expect—and probably much different than we expect as well.

“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The ladder that gives us access to heaven is the life of Jesus himself.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant the your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters

A sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, January 11, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

“The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…”

The image in this verse from the very beginning of the Bible, about the creation of everything that is … the image starts with a huge expanse of water, like the ocean, but without a shore, without even any islands. And there is no bottom, not just no sandy bottom that you can reach by snorkeling or scuba diving; no bottom—even miles down. It would be very frightening, alone in the dark, in the great limitless ocean, but there was no one there to be afraid.Dark Ocean

The water of the deep is chaos, it is meaningless; every direction is no direction. And then God said… “Let there be light!” Out of the meaningless, and directionless the eternal love that is God brought forth illumination, meaning and direction. And as we read further in the creation story, that water becomes the source and environment of life. Out of chaos, God has created life, and meaning and beauty. And water is not some sort of little symbolic thing, water is at the origin of existence and where God first gave light and direction to our lives.

This water is also the water of our baptism. Three young gentlemen will be baptized here with us this morning. When I was baptized, I was about the same age as Logan, the oldest of Regina Mungin’s three sons. My baby sister was not quite a year old. and I was almost six at Easter of 1960. I did not grow up in a big city, like New York, still less did I grow up on a Caribbean island surrounded by the ocean. I grew up in a small town in the middle of the western deserts of Idaho. Water was a precious thing, people fought over it. I remember going to St. David’s church in Caldwell, Idaho. It is a building much smaller than this, even on that Easter Sunday, with chairs in the aisles and the windows of the parish hall open to create a loft, it could have hardly seated 120. And I remember on ordinary Sundays, my mother took me to church sometimes. About half the time, the service was Morning Prayer, and in those days women and girls always wore white gloves to church. So I would sit with my mother and the priest would rattle on, saying boring and sometimes stupid things, and I would want to respond and say something. I remember that white glove covering up my mouth…

But in Morning Prayer, we also sang the canticles, and I could sing. I especially remember the Te Deum: “We praise thee o God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord, all the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting. To thee all angels cry aloud, the Heavens and all the Powers therein, To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.”

The whole heaven, the whole earth, praise that God that created us all. It is from that deep water that God has brought us all. The Gospel lesson today recounts the baptism of Jesus. John the Baptist was out there in the desert, baptizing people for repentance for their sins. Let’s think about that for a minute. God leads us in creation to a life of meaning, possibility, prosperity and love. The creation itself is praise for the living God that created the light. And yet, human beings manage to get lost, hurt one another, and lose direction in their lives. Our sins take us back into darkness, where we don’t understand one another and fail to respect and care for our brothers and sisters.

John the Baptizer was out there, encouraging people to repent, to return to the righteousness of God. And he said, “I baptize you with this water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That is, the Spirit of God, which is that Wind that was blowing across the bottomless deep from before creation, the Spirit which is the life of God, bringing life to all things. And as he climbed up out of the water, the Spirit descended on Jesus, like a dove, and the Voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

In baptism, we are immersed in water much deeper than this font, much deeper than in any baptistry where anyone has been baptized. We are immersed in those depths of God that were there before creation, all of our chaos and lostness is immersed and we re-emerge into the light of Christ. This Jesus gives direction and meaning in our lives—in the weeks to come we will hear his teaching and follow his life and ministry. As the baptized we become the Wisdom of Christ as we support one another and live in Him.

We are about to baptize three young men. Or at least very soon they will be men. We, gathered here, are the Church, and as the Church we are responsible to every one who is baptized, especially these three… Logan Mungin, Ethan Stowers, and Aiden Stowers, who are baptized today, to live as that light of God. In this world that has plenty of chaos and fear, it is our job to know that God is guiding us, and to share that meaning and that life, the gift of Living Water, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who Wonderfully Created, and yet more Wonderfully restored, the Dignity of Human Nature

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 4, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restore, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity…”

God created human beings with dignity. Fundamentally, from the beginning, that is the faith that all Christians share. God created ALL human beings with dignity.

Nelson Mandela - a Life of Dignity

Nelson Mandela – a Life of Dignity

And no matter how much we do to mess that up, whether it is by humiliating others or otherwise doing things to take away the dignity of others, or whether we surrender our own dignity through selfishness or fear, no matter how much we mess it up; God restores our dignity through Jesus Christ. This is the message of Christmas and of our Christian faith.

The Gospel lesson today is the story of the Magi—the three kings that brought gifts to Jesus. These are mysterious characters—they come from somewhere to the east—probably far away, maybe Persia, that is, Iran. And the word in the Gospel of Matthew probably means astrologers—scientists or magicians, probably not kings. They were from far away; they were not part of Israel or Judaism; they were from nations and cultures completely detached from the community of Joseph and Mary.

They read the signs in the stars. They knew that something great, something world-shattering, was happening. They set out on a long journey, calculating where the sign in the heavens was leading them. This kind of sign, this star, it was the kind of sign that something great was happening in the world, it was the kind of sign that would accompany the birth of great world leaders, like Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar. People whose influence touched the lives of everyone in the known world. These Wise Men knew a lot, but only so much, the rest they filled in from their experience.

So the star is leading them to Judea, and where would you look for the birth of someone who was going to affect everyone? They concluded that they should go to the royal palace. Where else would there be enough dignity for such a sign? So, like the rest of us, the Magi, these sages from the East, made a pretty serious mistake. They showed up at the palace of King Herod, looking for the newly born king.

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.

So these distinguished people sought out dignity where people tend to look for it, in the center of power and wealth. What they ended up doing, however, was to attract the attention of something quite the opposite of human dignity, the fear and rage of a selfish ruler.

But then they were sent to their real destination: a humble house in a small town. The dignity of human nature was wonderfully restored in that baby, unassuming and gentle. That one who would grow into the Jesus we know, whose love is so constant and courageous that we too can live without fear. And those wise men brought gifts from the ends of the earth to celebrate this great event. In Gold they brought all the riches that are due to the One who brings us everything: all life, all dignity, all hope. In Incense, all the world worships the true God, who restores dignity and life to all people, starting with the poorest and most humble. In Myrrh, that spice used in burial of great dignitaries, they worship Him who gives all of his life for all people, bringing restoration of human dignity in his death and resurrection.

The love of God is not manifested as the Magi expected. God’s love surprises all of us, both in its simplicity and its mystery. We rejoice with those travelers. God has brought us the greatest gift of all, let us praise God for surprising us by being in the midst of us in that baby and in the dignity he gives to each of us in making us his own.

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.