Month: March 2015

Crucify him!

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

Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Crucify him!

Crucifixion is hard to take.

And not just for Jesus. It is painful to hear, to attend to the details, to speak the words in the account of the Passion. We can’t stay with it very long, the pain is too much. We have to look away.

So we do look away. In the height of our devotion, like Peter, we may say or think, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” And we believe that. We are faithful and we won’t desert Jesus. And the problem is, we believe that. We believe that and we try to explain to ourselves how we don’t desert Jesus. And we look on the crucifixion story, and say to ourselves, how could people do that to such a good man, blameless and loving at all times? We cannot conceive how we might ever participate in such a thing. What’s wrong with those people? No one today would do such a thing, at least not any good, law-abiding, religious people.

We feel that, but we know that it is not true. There are examples of people who thought or think of themselves as good, law-abiding, and even religious people, people who call on the name of Jesus, and weep at the story of his crucifixion, who have hurt and killed other human beings, simply because of fear and anxiety about the loss of control and privilege. A few years ago I listened to a lecture at the General Theological Seminary by a theologian named James Hal Cone. He was a guest lecturer in a distinguished lecture series, and his thoughts were later incorporated into his book, entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It was a long and deep reflection, which incorporated description and reflection on Billie Holiday’s rendition of the song, “Strange Fruit.”

 Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Dr. Cone says this:

Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.

Dr. Cone speaks with much more authority and experience about the wounds of racial violence than I do. But it is clear, that if lynching, per se is not as fashionable as it once was, violence against people, and even killing, purely based on race persists in our country. Short of physical violence, discrimination, distrust, and the violation of the dignity of people persists and even increases today. Christians must clearly and continually see and know this passion of Christ that is so hard to look at. We cannot afford to stand by and let injustice happen to anyone at all.
It is incumbent on every person to take responsibility for cherishing life. It is our responsibility to follow Jesus, and to stay with him on his way to the Cross. This stuff with Peter makes it clear that being religious, or even being Jesus’ best friend, does not give us a free pass. It is a great temptation to assume that our religiousness or good-will make us more aware, or more merciful, and that we don’t need to worry about the consequences of our actions or our attitudes. St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility. Mercifully grant that we may walk in this way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth

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

for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2015

Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a singleWheat2grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This Lent we have been attending to the way in which it is preparation for baptism. On the first Sunday of Lent, the scripture was the story of Noah and the ark—the covenant with Noah binding together the water of creation, the water of the flood and the water of baptism. The second Sunday’s Gospel was about Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: our call to baptism is Jesus’ call to follow the way of God and not the way of human fear. The third Sunday of Lent we joined with the Catechumens preparing in depth for their baptism by reading the Ten Commandments and focusing on the reverence for the Living God, reverence where we follow with Jesus beyond the safe ways that people develop to simulate reverence while hiding from God.

Last week, on the fourth Sunday of Lent we remembered that our baptism is entirely a matter of the overwhelming mercy of God that: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The sovereign God lives and chooses to have mercy on this whole world, inviting even us to eternal life in Baptism.

Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we begin Holy Week next week with Palm Sunday. At the end of that week, on Easter Sunday we will baptize Jael join in affirming our own baptism. Today’s Gospel sums up our journey of preparation for our baptism: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen. Amen. I tell 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.”

In Christian faith, there is an intimate connection between death and living, between glorification and humility. The metaphor which Jesus uses here is about life. Jesus’ glorification is not in his suffering, but in bringing us life. Life is not something that is stationary, it is not something that we can hold on to, put in a box; hoard because we might want it someday. That would be that single grain of wheat, left on a shelf, like a useless, dead pebble. Life is to be lived. If we listen to Jesus and watch what he did, life is not just to be lived, life is something to be spent, to be invested. The investment in life is not for ourselves, however, it is to be given for the life of the world, for those who need, who want, who suffer. Jesus spent his life without fear of death, and he lived his life until he died, as do we all.

About a month ago, I was asked to preach on this same text at General Theological Seminary. It was the feast of Janani Luwum, the Archbishop of Uganda who was killed by Idi Amin in 1977. This is a particularly memorable event for me because I was in seminary at the time and I had a classmate who was a priest from Uganda. Janani Luwum was someone who spent his life as a follower of Christ. This is an excerpt from that sermon.

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. 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, 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.

We live now into our own baptism. We bear fruit, perhaps not in such dramatic ways, but with equal significance. In two weeks, we baptize an infant. We live the Christian life for her, and for others, young and old who need the love of Jesus. We are invited to participate in the glorification of Christ.

Accept his invitation to the feast, the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist. Have good courage and rejoice in the Lord always.

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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

Fourth Sunday in Lent March 15, 2015

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

As we approach our baptism at Easter, it’s important to remember that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.

The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world that the whole world is saved by him.

The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth. The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare to coffee hour at Trinity Church. Coffee hour at Trinity Church may be more like the heavenly banquet at the end of the ages. Still, there was food and yet the Israelites chose to hate it.

Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, ‘Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee deep in snakes.
Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.

Bronze SerpentAnd that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.

Three weeks from today, on Easter Sunday, we will be baptizing an infant, a new Christian, too young to speak for herself. We can do this because we are all a community that knows the mercy of God. We live in God’s gift and we share what we have received—the overwhelming love of God for the sake of the healing of the world. God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, living with us each day. Let us give thanks to God.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

We are moving forward through Lent on our way to our baptism. Most of us have already been baptized, but we can reflect and learn to understand it more, and to live our baptism more truly. We join again with the catechumens, those people who have since the very earliest church prepared by study and prayer before their baptism. It is not just our children who should learn the stories of scripture and the traditions of the church, but all of us.

The catechumenate was at one time so long and arduous that people with great depth of faith and commitment were still preparing for baptism when called upon to make their ultimate witness to Christ. Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua was a woman from northern Africa, who is the earliest Christian woman whose own writings have come down to us. She was a catechumen and she describes her own baptism while she was in prison, just before she was sent into the arena to be killed by wild beasts. (I talked about Perpetua in sermons twice last year)

Our lesson today from the book of Exodus is the Ten Commandments. As catechumens, we do well to have those memorized, or to re-memorize them if we have forgotten. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 & 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Ten Commandments are the beginning of the Law that God told to Moses on the Holy Mountain. The people of Israel had gone through a lot already before getting to the base of the mountain: hundreds of years of slavery, the conflict with Pharaoh, the hurried retreat across the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, grumbling, manna and quail to eat, more grumbling. And they reach the place where God will give them the law, shape them, and give them direction as a people in the midst of their difficulty – and their grumbling.

As I was looking at the lesson for this morning I noticed something. I actually copied the text of the lesson into my word processor so I could check the word count. There are 10 commandments, but over two-thirds of the text is dedicated to two sections. I’m sorry, to those of you who are also parents, the one that says “Honor thy father and mother” is not one of them, that gets only 7 percent— important as that is. The two sections that take a lot more space start with:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything…”

AND

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy …”

The rest are just commands, but these two get a lot of extra attention. Why?

The first says to focus only on God, the God who liberated Israel from slavery, not to find other things to worship or to bow down to, only to the one, true, living God. The second is to remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy, to not work or make anyone else work. These commandments focus on reverence to God. Not just on acknowledging that God is there, but in living a life in God’s presence, dedicated to God, and letting that reverence for God shape your life. The Holy and Living God deserves more than passing attention, but a life shaped around his love. But this is not to let pious conduct excuse us from responsibility in the world, the focus on reverence for God holds us to those other commandments: honor your parents, do not murder, commit adultery or steal. Don’t bear false witness against others or covet the things that are theirs. In other words, live like a responsible neighbor and be attentive to the way God loves them.

The Gospel today is also about reverence for God. Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, disrupted the money changers’ business and told the dove vendors to take them out of the Temple. In the Gospel of John, this is set early in Jesus’ ministry. It parallels many of Jesus teachings and actions, like healing on the Sabbath. Mostly, Jesus made the observant religious people uncomfortable.

We religious people believe in reverence to God, but we want it to be convenient and under control. The vendors there in the temple made the worship of God a more or less convenient transaction, and they did okay by it too. They got to be good people, being associated with the temple worship, and they made a nice living, God was easier to approach and under control.

But Jesus was not under control, he was free. He was free to listen to God and to follow God. He makes his disciples free to listen, to be reverent, to be his followers. So often, the religious response is to react—that breaks the rules! It’s safer if we just stay in the same channels we’ve worked out! God is dangerous and our procedures are what you need to be protected from God!

On the other hand, Jesus indicates that God is indeed dangerous, and we need to stop working out ways to avoid being responsible to the living God.

Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

This weekend we remember that 50 years ago, some people stepped out of the track of adhering to the safe procedures that had been established, and stood up for the right to vote. In Selma, Alabama, bloody Sunday began by their being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They witnessed to the truth, and they suffered for it. In fact that suffering was the truth. And the truth continues—some things have changed substantially, yet so much has not changed. Some laws and political structures have changed, but there has been no automatic change in human hearts, good will has not flowed and made people, either in Alabama or New York, comfortable and trusting with one another. Witness for the truth is a long-term proposition and it does not end with things being easy.

The reverence for God, in the desert with the children of Israel, or on the way of the cross with Jesus, or worshipping here in the Bronx is likewise a long-term proposition. We have no easy answers or one-time fixes. What we have is the fierce love of the living God, who is here with us, supporting us each day.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Second Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2015

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”

As I mentioned last week, Lent is about preparing for baptism. This Lent I will be talking about how the scriptures guide us more deeply into our life as baptized Christians.

So Jesus starts us right out: he “began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering…” And his friend and most senior colleague, Peter, takes him aside. And he tells him, “This is a really bad marketing strategy.” “Who wants to hear about suffering and being killed and dying and all that?” “Let’s tweak the message a little—healings, and that Kingdom of God thing, that is an image with legs…let’s go with that—lay off the suffering and dying thing.”

Marketing_brand_appeal_resizeSo, of course, Jesus said, “OK, I’ll try to be more positive, we wouldn’t want to put people off, I’ll try to work with your marketing strategy.” Maybe I should read exactly how he said it, I have it copied down here:

 

 

 

“He rebuked Peter and said, ‘GET BEHIND ME SATAN! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

So maybe Jesus wasn’t quite so interested in the marketing plan.

Jesus was describing the real life that he lived and the life of those who are baptized. After all, we are baptized into Jesus’ death. Make no mistake, that death was real, and it was the consequence of Jesus’ life—a consequence that he accepted fully, because he was fully accountable for his life. But sometimes we get wrapped up in the dramatic and the extreme and miss out on how Jesus’ death applies to our life and our baptism as ordinary Christians.

It did not take magic foresight for Jesus to realize that he would be rejected and indeed killed—rejection is a consequence of telling and living the truth. We like to avoid that. Those who smugly think that they are better than Peter in this are avoiding this truth more than he did. Jesus was the free-est person who ever lived. He spoke truth with a depth and loved people in proportion to that freedom. Jesus was not the most confrontational person in the Roman Empire or in first century Palestine, but the depth with which he lived the truth was extraordinarily threatening to those who wanted to control everything, especially to manipulate the message of religion and hold on to the power of state. The response to Jesus was big, and dramatic, because he lived the Truth with complete freedom and love that could not be missed.

Living the truth in a big way, and suffering rejection and violence in a big way does not happen suddenly. It follows after living the truth in small ways and small details, and taking the consequences of one’s actions. We are baptized into Christ’s death. We are baptized into the consequences of being free. To stand for the dignity of others, even though there will be a price to be paid.

We know stories of people who did that in big ways and paid the ultimate price: Malcolm X, just a week over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 for speaking out for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador.

But in fact each of us is faced with situations where it might be easier just to go along, just to accept something bad happening, perhaps to someone else, or to profit from a little untruth or a little meanness. Of course, some use the label of “truth-telling” to be harsh and destructive to others, but the person who is free, is the one who accepts the consequences of her or his actions and has courage to be loving when there is a price to be paid for it. It takes courage to refrain from giving false comfort, it takes courage to enter conversations where people are not going to be in agreement, and yet those are the conversations where Christian community arises.

In the reading this morning from the Letter to the Romans, Paul talks about Abraham being justified by faith and not by works. But what made Abraham a righteous man, the one whom God chose for his Covenant? It was the way he lived his life, in simplicity, in honesty—by feeding the strangers who passed by. The strangers who turned out to be angels who told him that he would have a child so very late in his life, that he would become a father of many nations.

In baptism, we die to falseness and we die to fear and we rise into a future of hope and community that is not superficial but founded on our sharing that baptism and that truth of Christ, who was rejected for living the truth, and the light of whose love revealed the falseness of the selfish. The way of God is not the way of convenience or of easy safety. He says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

We follow Christ to the altar, and in receiving his Body and Blood, we are bound into this baptism, the way of Truth and Life. Let us live our lives in thanks to God and share in his perfect freedom.