Month: February 2015

I am establishing my covenant with you and … with every living creature

A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, February 22, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature…”

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. It’s common to think of Lent as a time to give up things, or to feel bad about eating things you said you were going to give up, or about stricter spiritual discipline or about not saying or singing Halle—oops. But what is Lent about? It’s not about rules. Lent is a period of time that comes before Easter. It has been observed in various ways since ancient times. But the origin of Lent is not about contrasting a somber season with a happy season, the origin of Lent is, that in the early centuries of Christianity, just about all baptisms took place at Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. People would finish their preparation for baptism during those weeks, with prayer, fasting and study. The order of the readings through Lent still parallels the instruction and preparation for baptism.

I suggest that the best way to have a holy Lent is to live toward baptism. This doesn’t contradict any discipline that you might have developed, any particular way of paying attention to what is good, any ways of examining yourself, your motives and your relationships with others. But let’s look at Lent as our way forward toward the renewal of our own baptism, of understanding it more deeply, and of sharing God’s grace of redemption with others.

Rainbow at Yellowstone lakeOur first lesson today is the account from Genesis of God’s covenant with Noah. We know about the ark, and the animals two-by-two. We know about the flood that destroyed all living things. But let’s think about it. In there, in that enclosed boat was all the life that was left. The ocean was rising up and the rain was coming down. The ark was, for all intents and purposes, like a submarine immersed in an infinite sea. There was no way of guiding the ark, and no place to go even if you could. Noah and his family were completely lost. They passed through the waters of the deep. Forty days of rain and another 150 days in that darkness, then more months of waiting. It would have been frightening and discouraging for Noah and his family, but God was with them as they passed through the sea. As they returned to life on the land God made a promise, not to curse or destroy his people or his land. And the rainbow is the sign of that promise—that though we go through the depths of the water, in the middle of that and in the end of it, God in all his beauty is there, loving and protecting us.

That water is also the water of life and the water of baptism. In today’s Gospel, Jesus was baptized. Notice here, baptism did not separate Jesus from the real world or its difficulties. Jesus was in the wilderness, he was tempted by the Tempter and he was there with the wild animals. And he was out there for forty days. In a certain sense it was like an intense spiritual retreat, yet what that means is that the realities of this world were with him, even more than in everyday life. But those realities are not just the dangers, the obstacles, and the things that frighten us. Those realities are also the beautiful creatures of God, this gorgeous world which God gave to Noah and his descendants. The baptism that brings us into the real world, brings us into the world of God’s promise, of God’s presence, of God’s love for all of his creatures. And out there in the wilderness, it says of Jesus, “the angels of God waited on him.”

As we move forward in Lent, we are preparing for our own baptism. Baptism is into the death of Christ, but even more, our baptism is into the life of Christ. The life of real hope in the real world, the life of joy in God’s creation, the everlasting life—in Christ’s resurrection, death no longer has power, but we are bound together in his love for each of us.

This afternoon, we will have the service of the Burial of the Dead for our sister Alice Ebanks. We mourn her loss, we pray for her family, especially her son Omar. At the same time, we thank God and praise him, for a Christian life well lived. A sister baptized in Christ’s baptism and a participant in Christ’s resurrection.

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal; formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return. For so thou didst ordain when though createdst me, saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.: All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.


Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi

A Sermon at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The General Theological Seminary, New York

February 17, 2015

Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

When I was told that I was to preach on the feast of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda and martyr, I had a little Brian Williams episode. I told several people that I had a classmate in my entering class at CDSP in 1976 who arrived six weeks late for the beginning of classes because he had to walk to Nairobi, Kenya from Uganda because his archbishop had been killed by the government of Idi Amin. The problem is, that when I looked up the death of Archbishop Janani Luwum, he was killed on February 17, 1977, at least five months after John Mbishibishi arrived in Berkeley, California to start classes.

I remember talking with John after the Archbishop was killed, and John knew him, but only from a distance. His bishop and diocese were further south than Janani Luwum had been before being made Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. I conflated two events in my memory, much like Brian Williams did. Since some people here don’t remember the 1970s, I’ll review the relevant history here. Idi Amin was the commander of the army of Uganda who supported Milton Obote in 1967 when he suspended the constitution and took all powers of the government himself. A few years later, each correctly judged that the other could not be trusted—Amin acted first and took over in a military coup. He was able to consolidate his power because hardly anyone could believe that anyone would be as brutal and corrupt as Obote.

For Idi Amin it was about personal power and obedience to his whims. He would use ideological or religious justification to attack groups that he suspected might be loyal to someone else, including entire ethnic groups such as those who had been Obote’s base of support. He deported nearly 600,000 Ugandans of Asian ancestry and seized their businesses. He shifted his allegiance from Israel to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya because of military and financial support. And in July of 1976, he invited terrorists who had hijacked an Air France flight to Israel to land and keep the plane and their hostages at the Entebbe airport in Kampala. Israeli commandos raided that airport and rescued most of hostages, killing the hijackers and a number of Ugandan soldiers. Idi Amin was humiliated and became furious and retaliated violently.

My classmate, John Mbishibishi was scheduled to fly out of Kampala a week or two later. It seemed to him like it would be better to go to another airport, so he walked to Nairobi, though it meant missing our 5 week intensive Greek and Music boot camp and the first week of the fall quarter.

Archbishop Janani Luwum

Archbishop Janani Luwum

The biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts says that Janani Luwum was responsible for twenty-four congregations when he was first ordained. My classmate John wasn’t in charge of quite as many congregations as Archibishop Luwum was, maybe as few as eight or as many as thirteen (I can’t remember), even though he had already been ordained for several years before coming to the U.S. I do remember that he had to found a school in every village, because, as strict evangelicals, people had to be able to read the Bible before the church would agree to baptize them as adults, or to baptize their children. John said that it was a very big thing for him, after several years of ministry, that the church was able to procure a bicycle for him so he didn’t have to run between the villages.

In context, this is regular ministry, not really so much different or more challenging than the ministry which we are called to in this century and this country. As Archbishop, Janani Luwum had responsibility for a large and diverse community and a number of institutions, including Makerere University. President-for-Life Amin regarded both the church, which included many people from ethnic groups from whom Obote had drawn support, and their university as threats to him and his government. Amin’s soldiers ransacked the University that summer and the Archbishop spoke up in defense of the university and the Christian people of Uganda. He had little choice. It was his responsibility to speak the truth, and even many of those who tried to placate, support or befriend Amin ended up being the object of his anger and violence. In February 1977, unidentified people stormed into Luwum’s house searched it, and produced weapons they claimed they had found there. Christian leaders were rounded up and accused of plotting to kill Amin. Eventually most of them were released, but not Janani Luwum. As his colleagues left, he said to one of them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.”

That’s pretty matter of fact. And I must say, that John Mbishibishi was also matter of fact in describing his own life, not dramatic or self-interested, the facts speak for themselves. We needn’t assume that Archbishop Luwum was not anxious or did not feel fear of what he was about to go through. But he knew this text: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was not afraid to accept the reality that resulted from his choices. And he had been choosing, in his entire life as a Christian and as a priest, to be forthright for the good of others.

We think of martyrs as having dramatic lives, or at least dramatic deaths. We think of them as superheroes of the faith. But they are just people, who live Christian life day by day. It takes courage to tell the truth and it takes courage to be accountable for your decisions. There is always a cost. Sometimes Christians live in dramatic situations, and the cost they pay is dramatic. I am quite confident, that living or dead, in fantasy or in person, Janani Luwum would regard nothing as a greater compliment than to have it said of him that he was a Christian. He was a grain of wheat that fell to the earth and died, but has borne much fruit.

But another thing that the Archbishop would definitely say, is that it is not Janani Luwum that we remember, but Jesus, who glorified God in his hour. As he was lifted up, he draws all people to himself, to the mercy of God, the Glory of God, and his tender care for us. Brothers and sisters, let us join with Janani Luwum as servants of the living God.

For we do not proclaim ourselves

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 15, 2015

…the God of the world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the Glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

Today is the last Sunday before Lent begins and our lectionary always uses the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as the Gospel lesson. I must admit that I have often been puzzled by the Transfiguration, not quite understanding what it was about. Of course, I’m in good company: St. Peter was there and this is what today’s lesson from Mark says about him: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

This is a mysterious and strange thing at the top of this mountain. Jesus suddenly starts to shine, brighter than the lights on Broadway, more like a nuclear explosion or a close-up of a pure white star. But what does it mean? Moses and Elijah were there—the prophet who brought down the law of God from the top of the mountain to the people of Israel and the other prophet who was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind by a chariot of fire. And the voice from heaven, “This is my son, the beloved, Listen to him!” So similar to what happened at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

So the story connects with a lot of important things elsewhere in the Bible, but I’m still puzzled. Jesus is shining. {Shrug} There’s not much moral to that. Not much content or direction. The disciples are frightened and confused. I suppose that could describe the church today, but …

What does St. Paul have to say? “…the god of this world (or this age) has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ.” The apostle is referring to the false god and false values that people fall into so easily. The word that is translated as “world” is “aeon” which originally has a meaning of a long time, perhaps eternity. You might think of it as “this present age” and the distractions we have in the present time—but don’t think of it as “kids these days” or “that pesky internet”—Paul was talking about 2000 years ago, long before any of our grandparents grandparents were complaining about their kids. This time is always the time of distraction, of values of selfishness and building up pride in worthless possessions, putting those values before the spiritual values of Christ’s self-giving love.

We are often blinded from seeing even the brightest of lights of Christ’s love by being too busy, or too smart to be simple and listen to him. Sometimes we are distracted by ourselves, our own achievements, our own organizations. Sometimes we can even make the church part of the “present age” or the “god of this world,” if we look to its numbers, or its prestige as the measure of its value. For St. Paul says, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” The life that we get, we get from the Living God, not from the god of this age or of the past age. It is not from bishops, or priests or vestries, or even from smart people organizing something they think will be better than those things. The life is the life of God in Jesus.

I grew up in a very different place from most people here, and in different circumstances. The culture that I learned was Anglo-Saxon and a bit Germanic. I developed tastes and esthetic judgments based on my background and education. The style of liturgy I developed was what I wished that worship would have been like in my childhood: concise, spare, clear. My style was based on the good parts of what was familiar to me, and what was familiar seemed to be what Jesus was looking for. But here, the liturgy and context is very different from either my childhood or my training. But Jesus is here. How can that be?

We are here with those who love us and who God loves to receive new life and openness to new calling from God. Yet at the same time, the god of this age draws us to those things we want to hold on to simply because they are like us and are familiar to us—they make us comfortable and complacent. It is not familiarity and comfort that are the reason for us to be here, but the precious treasure of that love that God’s people have for one another. St. Paul continues in the next verse after today’s reading ends, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” It is in this place that we find ourselves, and with these companions here that are familiar to us, that God works his miracle, calling us forward, to be his body in the world, though it be totally new and strange.

“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

So we are there on the mountain with Peter and James and John. They were terrified, and a cloud overshadowed them. The voice came, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” They looked around, and there wasn’t anything there—no more Moses, no more Elijah, and apparently the pyrotechnics of Jesus clothing and body weren’t there any more—just Jesus.

Mount of the TransfigurationAnd they went with him down the mountain to accompany him on that final trip to Jerusalem. This week we begin our observance of Lent. Let us focus on him alone, and follow until the light of his resurrection glorifies God in our lives.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

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

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 8, 2015

Have you not known? Have you not heard? …God brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Sometimes I think that people think of God as just a little bit bigger and smarter than us. Actually bigger and smarter, but not that much. Sort of like when President Obama was first elected, he invited some NBA players to come and play, 3 on 3 with him in the White House gym. Of course they were a lot better, but he could play some ball, and his teammates would set him up to take a shot every once in a while, and because he was the President of the United States of America, they didn’t hurt him or humiliate him too much. He admitted he wasn’t in their league, and was pretty humble about it, but he could still play.

It’s that kind of comparison that I’m afraid that people make with God and it just doesn’t work. Thinking of our place in the universe with relationship with God is not like me posting up against Charles Barkley. It is more like while Sir Charles and I are pushing each other, the sun explodes engulfing and destroying all the planets in the solar system, and for God, it is hardly a twinkle in the fabric of the universe.

Abstract big explosion

So that is why the prophet has this series of questions: “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” This creator of ours is not to be compared with anyone or anything. The differences between what we regard as high and low, rich and poor, powerful and week are infinitely small compared to how vastly different we are from God.

Some might think that that would mean that God wouldn’t care about the differences. They are so small after all. That one has a Rolls Royce and another a Toyota is hardly an issue worth talking about. But God deeply cares about how people treat one another, how some exploit differences—regarding themselves as better, perhaps even closer to God—because they are now in a position of wealth or privilege. This happens, over and over among human beings. People, no matter how much wealth and privilege they have—or even those who don’t—jockey for position and try to get a leg up by putting others down. Sinful human creatures that we are, we like to claim to be creators, and otherwise godlike, when creativity in truth, emerges from humility and recognizing our own humanity with all its beautiful limits.

“God brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows down upon them and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”

But the most dramatic thing of all, is that this infinite, all powerful creator, loves each and every one of his creatures: “He brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, because he is great in strength, might in power, not one is missing.”

The judgment of God is on those who through pretense or presumption seek to damage any one of the children of God. Those who are more powerful, through birth, or wealth, or politics, or position are the more responsible to be humble and merciful to those whom God loves.

This month, we are observing Black History Month. And we recall many witnesses to the glory and sovereignty of God. Yesterday at the Cathedral, the Diocese observed the feast of Absalom Jones, the first African-American to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. He was not a man of great power or wealth. He scraped together his earnings to purchase the freedom of his wife, and later himself. He was never a bishop and he was never as well-known as his colleague and fellow churchman Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. What Father Absalom Jones did was found and pastor a congregation. It is still there, in south Philadelphia, St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. He spoke eloquently for the dignity of all people and the end of slavery and servile fear. It is not for power or position that we remember Absalom Jones, but for the love of the all sovereign God proclaimed to those who had no privilege.

In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus healing, in particular Peter’s mother-in-law. It is not that she got up and acted like she felt better. Jesus, the Word, the Son of the living God who knows and loves each individual actually healed her and made her well. Then she did what healthy women did, she served at table. That healing is not a magic act, it is Jesus bringing and extending the creation of the sovereign Creator into these lives, each of them. He healed others, then went away in the dark to a deserted place, praying by himself. When they found him, he said, “Let’s go.” And they went out to the whole district of Galilee and brought that creation, that good news of the love of God to everyone.

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will be faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”