Month: July 2015

But what are they among so many people?

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

But what are they among so many people?

One thing I’ve noticed over the past several weeks as we have read through the Gospel of Mark is how everything in Jesus’ ministry revolves around healing. There are stories of Jesus healing people embedded in other stories of him healing other people. Jesus sent out his disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons. And even when he was back at home and couldn’t do signs of power, he healed a few sick people.

So maybe that’s just the Gospel of Mark’s thing? It is true that each Gospel has a different perspective, and in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, Jesus the Son of God, casts out demons and heals the sick.  Today, for some reason, the lectionary shifts from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. So we have a different perspective. So how does this lesson in the Gospel of John begin? “A large crowd kept following him, because of the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Jesus heals, in all the Gospels.

You know when you hear it said, “Jesus saves?” What it means is that Jesus heals. He heals the injuries and illness of individuals and of groups of people, even our society.  Some think that it means that he swoops people out of this world into someplace else, but that is not what salvation means, it means healing.  And those demons he casts out—those are the injuries and illness that no one wants to take responsibility for—illnesses of our whole systems, and they take on a life of their own.

So we are in the Gospel of John and a huge group of people comes around the lake to catch up with Jesus, looking for healing.  Jesus is standing there, up on the hillside next to Philip. I think we sometimes get too serious and somber when we read the stories, just because they are in the Bible. Jesus is standing there on the hill and he sees, from quite a way off, this big group of people coming. He knows that what they want is healing—it’s not like they’re coming for a dinner party. But it’s a BIG GROUP. So he nudges Philip, and he says, “How are you going to feed all these people?” And Philip’s eyes get big, and he imagines the cost. He freezes. He says “Two hundred denarii. That wouldn’t even be enough to buy bread for this group.” He’s thinking of a pile of silver coins bigger than he would likely ever see—the whole payroll for a week’s wages for a large crew of workers. It never occurred to him to send them over to Trinity Church after Sunday service.

Andrew says, “Here’s what we have, but what is that among so many people?” The disciples are all overcome by the size of the problem. They want a solution to the whole problem, and they see it as a problem that they need to solve out of their resources. Jesus says: “Have them all sit down.” It turns out there was a lot of grass there—they could all sit down in relative comfort.

Loaves and fishesThen Jesus took the loaves and he gave thanks. Jesus took what they had and he gave thanks, he gave thanks to God for those loaves and those fish, not for the ones that they didn’t have or wished they might have. Jesus gave thanks.

We miss that so often, that in his life Jesus gave thanks, that thanksgiving is what defines us as God’s people. That is what this service, the Eucharist, means. In thanksgiving, Jesus began to distribute the bread and the fish to the people. Now the story we read is a miracle. But the thing is, Jesus wasn’t focusing on the problem of the five thousand, he focused on thanksgiving, and on giving, giving the bread and the fish to those who were there in front of him. In this sign, Jesus is generous and God is generous and feeds everyone.

We turn to Jesus for healing, as did his disciples, as did all of those people in that crowd. Out of God’s superabundant generosity Jesus healed them all with food for their bodies.

But this group saw it as something different.  They saw that he made all this food and it looked like power to them—they wanted to make him king.  People want to take the gift of healing and turn it into power. We tend to think if we have enough power, we can do away with the need for healing, that we will be smart enough and good enough—we forget about all those times when we are neither kind, nor thankful.  As the people grabbed at him, trying to institutionalize his power and make him king … Jesus slipped away.  That was not what the bread or the fish or any of the healing was about.

But how does this story end today? The disciples get in the boat again, and they are in the storm again. And they are very afraid, again.  And they saw Jesus walking on the water, and he said, “It is I, do not be afraid.” And they wanted to grab him into the boat, but right then they found they had reached solid land.

Dear friends. Let us be thankful, let us be generous, let us be unafraid, let us be steadfast. Let us gather in thanksgiving at the Lord’s table.

You who were once far off

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said to his apostles: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure, even to eat.” That happens … and it is important sometimes for all of us to take rest, step back and allow our bodies, minds and spirits to recover and re-energize. Last week, Paula and I took time away—we went to Boston for a few days to visit my granddaughter and her parents, then we spent several days on Cape Cod Cape cod marshwith our friends Josh Davis and Danielle Thompson. Josh is a theologian, who until recently, was on the faculty with me at General Theological Seminary; his wife, Danielle is an Episcopal priest. We had a wonderful time with them, visiting, playing with their kids, walking on the beach, and Josh and I spent hours talking theology.  It’s what you do on vacation, I guess.

One of the things that Josh mentioned was that he had been looking at the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. So often, Christians regard Galatians as a place where Paul is saying that the Gospel has superseded or negated Judaism, by giving a better way that is free from the law. But that isn’t what Paul is saying at all. What he says is that the Jews remain Jews and the gentiles remain gentile and they are united in Christ. That Jesus, the Jew, included those who were not Jewish into participation in God as a pure gift, not destroying their separate cultures, and at the same time including those who practiced Judaism in Christ without changing their practice and obedience to Jewish law.

Christ has come into the world, and the unity of human beings, is not in being alike, but in being united with him. It was the great and extraordinary gift, that the God of Israel bestowed this belonging on the Messiah of Israel—that is what that Greek word Christ means—to those who were not otherwise part of Israel. Galatia was a part of that area that is now modern Turkey. Ephesus was a city substantially west of there, on the west coast of modern Turkey. Our epistle lesson this morning was written to the Christian community at Ephesus, which like the Galatians, was made up of gentile Christians with few Jewish members.  In our lesson, the unity of all people in Christ is emphasized.  But we would be mistaken to think that when Paul talks about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the groups he means that Christ is abolishing differences.

The lesson says this: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The wall is the hostility between people, not their differences. All through the writings of Paul he is contending with one party or another, where leaders arose who tried to simplify their own lives by saying that the church should be one, and that should be by everyone conforming to their culture, observances and way of living. Eventually what happened was that Paul lost out. Rather than Jews living observantly, being one component of the diverse body of the Messiah, they were eliminated or conformed into the gentile church; Jews were regarded as the enemies and rivals of the Church. The results of that have been tragic.

Hostility was masked in the church by conformity and was replaced by fear and hatred. People find it simpler to have only one kind of people. Or rather two kinds of people, “Our People” and “Bad People.” That then makes it easier to control: our people can then gradually let some of the Bad People become part of our people, by becoming like our people. That is not the message of Jesus or of St. Paul, who said it this way: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…” It is the mercy of God and the undeserved gift of being admitted to Christ that gives any of us hope and life abundant. It is not ours, Christ is not our possession, we are his. We don’t serve Christ by giving up our own distinctiveness or opinions, neither do we serve him by failing to accept those who differ from us.

The Body of Christ takes its beauty from its many forms, from the depth of people’s commitment to their own cultures and traditions and from the respect between peoples. This is not easy or automatic—in fact it is easier at times to see the walls of hostility than to see that respect. We are not united in a Christian culture, but in Christ. It takes the action of God, the mercy of God, the gift of God to make this happen.

As our lesson from Ephesians concludes:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are build together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

John, whom I beheaded, has been raised

A sermon at St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

July 12, 2015, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

This is the Gospel of Mark’s preface before we hear the plot synopsis of the Richard Strauss opera Salome.

The Herod in the Gospel lesson is the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas.  Antipas wanted to be king of all Judea, like his father, but he had a brother who also wanted the same thing and another brother who also had a claim. When they gathered in Rome, the emperor didn’t think any of them was as talented or as trustworthy as their father, so he split up Herod’s kingdom and made none of them king. The oldest brother got Jerusalem, and Antipas got the consolation prize of being tetrarch of Galilee. What does tetrarch mean? Well, it is a Roman name for an officer in charge of an area. AND it definitely does not mean king.

herod and salomeSo we have the image of a man born to privilege and some power, who definitely wants more of both, but is afraid of losing them both. Sort of a run-of-the-mill kind of guy in our country nowadays, especially in New York City, where I lived until recently. You can see it in the kind of games he plays with his friends and his use of the young woman: a feeling of entitlement that is heightened by fear of losing his privilege.

John, who we know as John the Baptist, spent his life reminding people of the truth: the God of love is the center of all, not anyone else, not any person, no matter how powerful. John called people to repentance, and he pointed out things; things that were uncomfortable, because they were true.

The Herods were all Roman clients and it was to the Roman Empire that they owed their loyalty. Herod Antipas was challenged by John to attend to the God of Israel, the God who heard the poor and brought them out of Egypt, the God who led them beyond the fear of any human being. Herod was challenged by that truth—then he listened to his fear. His fear of the Romans, his fear of losing privilege.  He has the power, he has the soldiers, and he has to silence John, the reminder of the truth, so he had him taken into custody.

He goes home, he has some friends, and cronies and affiliates over, and we have the Strauss opera. It’s a tragedy, and often the tragedy is understood as the dilemma of Herod’s choice as to whether to behead John the Baptist. But the real tragedy is his running from the truth to protect his privilege.

The lesson starts, “King Herod heard of it.”  Heard of what? The only thing this can be referring to is what we heard in the previous passage last week. In that passage, after Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, we have these two verses: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

That’s what Herod Antipas’ heard—and that was his worst nightmare. In the message and life of Jesus, was the same truth preached by John: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The demons of society are cast out and the poor and the sick are healed. Fear is cast out, and truth comes in. And where does that leave Antipas and his privilege? He’s left with his fear and need to run away from truth. Good news for the poor made no sense to Antipas.

From a point of view of being privileged—and I include myself in this—it is very difficult to even see the privilege, let alone to acknowledge that any change is possible.  How can there be a change, for instance, in racism and its effects in this country, that won’t have an impact on the comfort and prosperity of those of us who don’t suffer from racism? When you think about it, that’s an odd question, yet people have been saying that for years—sometimes, they express it as not wanting to disrupt society. And change in a society effects everyone, and it changes things for those who have power and privilege.  People are afraid of changes, because they fear a loss of comfort and security. Like Herod Antipas, who ran from his fear by indulging in strange parties and taking his brother’s wife—he sort of covered it up, but his fear was greater, not less. And he could never face up to the Romans.

Make no mistake, Jesus brought good news to the poor, and it is good news for all of us. The freedom that comes from the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick is precious, the most precious thing of all, but it comes at high cost. Sometimes when we face our fears, what happens is indeed what we had feared.  This is the hallowed Christian tradition of the witnesses, the confessors, the martyrs. Yet it is the only way for change to come into the world.  Last week, Jesus was rejected in his hometown, so he went out and he sent out his disciples to heal and to cast out the demons of this world. And Herod Antipas was afraid.

Hear how our Old Testament lesson ends:

“When King David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.”

Unlike Herod Antipas, here King David, the archetypal king of Israel, was all about the people, the whole people—to each, both men and women a full portion all good things. Just so, Christ feeds us, as we partake of his death and resurrection in the Eucharist.


…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Jesus went home, and he taught in the synagogue and it was pretty impressive. But THEY knew his background. “That Mary woman, he’s her son. Yeah, we know about that family. carpenter He’s just a rough carpenter, sometimes picked up work framing houses—but I hear now he mostly just wanders around the countryside with those ‘disciples’ of his.  He’s better off just wandering out of here.”

Around home, they know all the down sides of people. When we know people from a long time back, we’re not so inclined to be polite about them, and we’re not so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—because we think we know them. But with strangers, it’s different. Especially when someone appears successful, well-dressed, wealthy, powerful. Despite the fact that we really don’t know them, we want to think of them as perfect. And we want to imagine that the people we endorse are perfect—perfectly powerful, perfectly good-looking, no blemishes or doubtful aspects to their background, and certainly never disagreeing with us, or calling our behavior into question.

Jesus was a hometown boy, and the people remembered every little thing, every jealousy, every mistake, every disagreement. By the way—when we talk about Jesus being the incarnation of God, we tend to think that he didn’t make mistakes. I think that’s wrong. He was a human being, and there is no reason to think that, as a Palestinian kid, he did calculus and differential equations as a three-year-old. His perfection was in being the perfect manifestation of God’s love, and that did not mean that he was never annoying to his elders or contemporaries. So he came to his home town, and he preached in the synagogue. And at first, the listened and the insight touched them, it was extraordinary, but then they said, wait… we know this guy, he’s not so impressive…he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a carpenter.  And we know his family… you know, one of those families—in fact those brothers, James and Joses, I had some dealings with them…

Like the rest of us, the people of Nazareth were looking for something really big, and really impressive, and from sources that could not possibly be criticized. And you know what? Those sources don’t exist, because ever since Eve saw that apple and got into that conversation with the serpent, criticism and suspicion have been a big part of how people do business. So great acts of power… the people of Nazareth weren’t going to see those.

What did Jesus do?  It says, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus reached out and healed, and pretty much nobody noticed.  Because he was familiar, and not driving the newest car, or wearing the fanciest clothes, no one noticed that he reached out to the sick and healed them. No flashes of lightning or puffs of smoke, no fireworks like we saw last night, he just laid his hands on a few sick people and cured their disease.

The important things that God does are not fireworks. We come to God for salvation, but that word salvation, it does not mean dramatic rescues, or big rewards far away and a long time off, salvation means healing, salving, of our souls, our relationships, our bodies and our society. Sometimes, especially close to home, that healing comes without all the fanfare that we might want or expect. Jesus healed a few sick people, and that was all that was necessary. Then he sent out those twelve who were with him. Two by two they went with nothing.  Just themselves, no resources. And what did he tell them to do? “Whenever you enter the house stay there.” That’s all, stay there. Nothing big, nothing dramatic and nothing about what wonderful people the disciples were, or even how wonderful Jesus was. So they were there, they talked about the love of God and repentance. In the process here’s what the Gospel says happened, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I just lived in Bible times, or the times of the early church!” or “Oh, if there was just the opportunity to know what God is clearly calling me to do, and the chance to do it.” I’ve certainly thought that at times. But if we look at Jesus and his disciples, their life was much like our lives, and what they did, was what we do, they came together, talked about the love of God, prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Friends we are living in Bible times. Events of the last few weeks in Charleston and elsewhere, show that our society has many demons to be cast out. God is the one who casts out demons, but we gather together and pray—like the disciples we may have no bread, no bag, no money in our belts—but God cures the sick and gives us life, not through drama, but through his presence.

St. Paul said this to the church at Corinth:

“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefor I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”