Month: October 2015

Look—the dwelling of God is among people

A sermon for All Saints Day, November 1, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Look! The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today is an important day. It is the Feast of All Saints, when we celebrate all of the holy people of God, of all times and ages. Today is also the first anniversary of the death of Father Allen Newman, who was priest in charge at Trinity for seven years. On All Saints Sunday, a year ago I first met you in this Church, and that has been more important for me than I can explain. But most important, today we baptize two new Christians into the Body of Christ.

The Book of Revelation is the Vision at the end of the Bible that opens up the possibilities for our future with God. It does this in the context of all the things that might happen, and particularly those that we would fear. A big part of those ghosts and goblins that we experience on Halloween (which is just old timey speak for the evening before All Saints Day) is that those ghosts and goblins represent our fears and the dangers that assail the saints of God—that assail all of us.

Our lesson today from Revelation shows God’s Holy City arriving, pure, without any of the hurts and harms that we human beings have wrought on themselves and one another. It says that it was prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Two weeks ago, Paula and I were at a wedding. The bride is a person who is always beautiful, always stylish, always independent. But on this day, it was something extraordinary. She had chosen a beautiful dress, appropriate to the occasion, but it was the bride’s radiance that adorned the room. She was prepared for her new life, a future with her beloved, filled with hope, and filled with all those characteristics of each of them, including independence, intelligence and respect for others. That white dress was symbolic of going into that future unsullied and unafraid.

Those things are what that new Jerusalem represents—a future that God’s people entered, hopeful, fully alive, unsullied and unafraid. That city is the home of God. And a voice comes down from heaven and it says, “Look—the dwelling of God is among people.”

The dwelling of God is among people

The dwelling of God is among people

God is here with us, welcoming us, sustaining us, giving us joy and hope. But it also says something else: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Not that there will be no tears. We know we are talking about real life now. In real life there is suffering and there are tears, and God will wipe them away with his comfort and his presence.

We are baptizing these infants in this real world, a world in which many suffer, and many die. This month a year ago, we lost Allen and Keith. And there were tears. But in Jesus Christ, God has come among us, and dwelt with us. His facing death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead are also in that real world. God wipes away our tears and abolishes death by partaking of our life and death.

When we are baptized into Christ’s death that font is filled with all the tears of all the generations of our ancestors. But it is also filled with the fresh water of the new creation. The children will be baptized into the resurrection of Christ, where all tears have been wiped away and death is no more. They embark on a life growing up with the saints. There are saints in our background—of long ago, the apostles and martyrs of the early church; of recent history like Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young theologian who was executed by the Nazis or Nelson Mandela; or prominent contemporary witnesses such as Desmond Tutu or Michael Curry who will be installed as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church this afternoon; or people from the heritage of this parish such as Allen Newman, Keith Warren or Father Wendell Roberts.

But these children will also grow up among the saints who are right here and right now. You also have been baptized into the resurrection of Christ—we are all witnesses to Christ’s love, to his death and to his resurrection. We live together in this real world, and all of our children live with us in the reality of this world. And that reality is the life and love of God who dwells here with us. We are the saints for these children who will be the saints of the next generation.

There is always more truth to emerge from scripture, no matter how many times we read it. And every time we have a reading from scripture, there is always more that follows it. This lesson from Revelation stops in the middle of a verse. I am going to read the end of that lesson again for you and include the rest of that verse:

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

We are all invited to the spring of the water of life, we share in one baptism and we live with God among us. Let us now proceed to the baptismal font.

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Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 25, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

Bartimaeus sat by the road in Jericho where it took off toward Jerusalem.  People tolerated him. They let him sit there. He was blind and not of any use to anyone, so he sat there and they would give him tips from time to time, which was all he had to survive on. They tolerated him, and sort of felt good when they gave him alms.

But there was this guy passing through town, a pretty big deal, a healer and preacher and there was a big group following him. And Bartimaeus cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is not normal.  “Son of David” was a messianic title, not a normal way to honor a person—and no one there had ever heard anything about Joseph or Mary having any descent from the royal family of Israel. Bartimaeus was a beggar because he was blind, now was he also crazy? And he shouted, and they tried to stop him—this was embarrassing.  “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus stopped.

Jesus had been called extravagant things before. Demon-possessed people said he was the Son of God, and he told them to be silent. But when he heard Bartimaeus, he said, “Call him here.”  Of course, all the people who had been disrespecting the beggar changed their tune and started scrambling around to look helpful.

And Jesus calls him over and he jumps up and goes to him and Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Interestingly, that’s the same question Jesus asked last week. But he was talking to James and John, two of Jesus inner circle, and Jesus doesn’t give them what they ask, because they asked for the preferred places, at Jesus’ right and left hands. In this case, he asks Bartimaeus, “What do YOU want?” and Bartimaeus answers, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

Realize, languages don’t always match up. The translation we have read today says, “I want to see again.” And look_upindeed, the Greek means that—one word is translated, “see again.”  But the same word is also used to mean, “look up,” as in “Jesus looked up into heaven” when he was blessing the loaves and fishes. This man wanted to see, and it certainly can be understood straightforwardly, that he was tired of being blind and sitting there by the road. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s look at what happens next. Jesus had called Bartimaeus, right? And when Bartimaeus asks to see, Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you—Go.” And where does Bartimaeus go? Does he go home, or back to his family, or looking for a job? He follows Jesus on the way.

We don’t pick this up from the lectionary, but the very next story in the Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Bartimaeus followed Jesus from Jericho to Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives. Holy Week, Jesus’ final week and his journey to the cross, began with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Before that, the only person in the Gospel of Mark to address Jesus as the Son of David, was the blind beggar, Bartimaeus.

He was a man of no account, and blind. Yet he had the vision to see Jesus, the Messiah. The courage to speak it aloud, when everyone around him wanted it kept quiet. The love of God that Jesus brings is costly, and it is not always comfortable. Jesus transforms this world, not by handing out and blessing power, but by healing his servants.  Following Jesus on the way is not a lark, but a life of love and sacrifice. I doubt that Bartimaeus had a really clear idea of what the Son of David would be. We know that he never had seen Jesus when he first said it—he was blind when he said, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The vision of our way forward is not clear, it is not easy, and it is not accomplished by keeping things the way they were.

“Go. Your faith has made you well.” Go where? The blind man could see that he should follow Jesus down the road, but where do we go, each of us? The difference between the blind man whose request was granted this week, and the two disciples of the inner circle whose request was not granted last week, is that those two disciples, at that moment, were asking to be put above others—expressing their anxiety for their own security in competition with others; while Bartimaeus asked simply to see. He expressed his deepest and most real need, and it was both to physically see and to see the way of God, the Kingdom of God, the road of servanthood.  The one that nobody thought should have any privilege or even any rights cried out to Jesus for mercy. It didn’t matter what those with influence thought or said, Jesus gave him mercy, real mercy, real life. Jesus has mercy for each of us, real mercy, for our deepest hurts and our deepest needs. Where do we go? Jesus asks us. When we are healed, we follow him on the way of servanthood.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what your promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for and ever. Amen.

Open Letter from William F. Hammond to GTS Trustees (October 21, 2015)

William Hammond is a lifelong Episcopalian. He was a professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Albany. He is now living in retirement in San Diego, California.  Bill sent the letter below to the GTS Board of Trustees this week.  He would like it to receive wider circulation, so I am posting it here in my blog.

Open Letter to GTS Trustees (October 21, 2015)

Be Servant Leaders

An Open Letter to the GTS Board of Trustees

William F. Hammond

San Diego

October 21, 2015

Mark 10:42-45
So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

It was a dark day in 1962 when I saw my long time friend, a priest who had graduated from The General Theological Seminary, fired from his post for daring to call out the congregation on its racially segregated status. The darkness was that of institutional power subverting the Gospel in the name of the Church.

Fortunately I find most days in The Episcopal Church to be days of light.

theEightsm

But a year ago October 1 was another dark day when the New York Times published an article entitled “Seeking Dean’s Firing, Seminary Professors End Up Jobless”.

An eight member majority of the Faculty had found that the new Dean, far from being a servant leader, was making it impossible for them to carry out their duties conscientiously. The conflict was complicated because your leaders had refused meaningful dialogue and had become a party to the conflict.

The eight members of the Faculty had written a letter to Bishop Sisk, then your Chair, beginning “We the majority of the Faculty,” saying that the hostile authoritarian posture of the Dean was making it impossible for them to continue and listing the changes they thought essential for them to be able to continue. In reply on behalf of the Board’s Executive Committee, Bishop Sisk sent individual letters to the eight disingenuously dismissing them by “accepting their resignations” apparently without bothering to check whether individually any of them had intended to resign.

Several weeks later you ratified that decision with a majority vote and then insensitively and dishonestly “made it unanimous” with a second vote where nay voters were pressured into abstaining.

Another priest friend, a teacher on the staff of a seminary, said: “The Dean was mean, and the Board sacked the Faculty.” My friend along with more than 900 seminary professors, theological scholars, and academically-oriented preachers signed a petition in protest of an inappropriate abuse of institutional power by your leaders, who, with your cooperation, had recently revised the Bylaws so as to make the Seminary an earthly kingdom with the Dean as king.

A year after the event, it is clear, as many had predicted, that dismissing eight of ten members of the Faculty was a nearly fatal blow.

It is not insignificant that since the Dean arrived a dozen members of the professional staff other than Faculty members, including three librarians, have left the Seminary.

According to grapevine information, this fall there were only 14 students (though fewer than 14 full-time-equivalent students) in the entering class. Of those only six are seeking the M.Div., among whom four are postulants.1

The latest newsletter from the Seminary indicates that giving in the past year, including giving by Board members, has greatly declined relative to the previous year.

There was a suddenly scheduled “focused visit” last December by an accreditation team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), which identified a number of issues: the broken state of the Faculty, confused theological vision, questions about workplace ethics, and a dysfunctional system of shared governance.

The Seminary faces a second focused visit from an ATS accreditation team before the end of the current term. As far as church observers from outside can see, there will be little progress to report on the concerns raised in the focused visit last year.

Last spring the Seminary submitted a canonically required triennial report to General Convention. That report neglected to mention the pending loss of a majority of the Faculty. In response to the inadequate report and spurred by complaints the 2015 meeting of General Convention passed Resolution D075 ordering the formation of a committee to review the relationship of The Episcopal Church with The General Theological Seminary.

Those of you who were angered and outraged by what you called the ultimatums of the Faculty were contributors to a stifling authoritarianism that has choked the Seminary nearly to death. That is not your calling nor the calling of your leaders. You are called to serve.

I think you should take heroic efforts to preserve the Close. That will take money. But that is far less important than preserving the Community whose beating heart is the Faculty. The Seminary could survive a move from the Close, but it cannot survive without a strong core Faculty of sufficient breadth. Rebuilding the core Faculty will be difficult because of the reputation you presently have in the community from which you will need to hire. You will need to dispel that.

It is time for the Board to apologize to the Church.

It is time for new leadership.

It is time for the Board to restore a proper role for the Faculty in the governance of the Seminary2— not only because that will remove one of the accreditation issues but also because leadership at the Seminary can then more closely match the Kingdom standard of servant leadership rather than the worldly standard of authoritarian leadership.

It is time to separate the positions of Dean and President, with the latter position focused primarily on fund raising (and not operating from a different city).

It is time for the Board to reconsider its size. To the extent that its present large size might have been established in the 1990s toward the end of raising funds, it now seems that end has not been met.

Finally, it is time for The Episcopal Church to find better ways to help support the seminaries that are able to survive and their students.


Footnotes

  1. * Previous information given to me, which had been in an early draft, was five entering M.Div. enrollees with one postulant.
  2. * For example, by reverting the Bylaws to the end of the year 2006.

Jesus took them up in his arms

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 4, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

holding childHe took the children in his arms and held them. He kept them safe, so they knew they were loved, and he blessed them. And not because they were cute; or that he liked the way that they played.

In the last couple of weeks the Gospel has been showing some of the bad sides of Jesus’ followers. And that can be uncomfortable because they resemble us, more in the ways that they are annoying and problematic than in any other way. It continues today. We’re in a new scene in the Gospel, they had walked to a new region. There was this controversy, which I’ll get back to, and then the disciples decided to be Jesus’ “handlers.” They knew how annoying little kids can be, wanting attention, making noise, looking out for what they want first. So the disciples decided to clean things up and push away those kids and their parents. Jesus would have none of it. He knew how annoying adults could be, wanting his time and attention for themselves, talking over others to get their opinions in first, manipulating everything for their own self-interest. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

The only thing that really distinguishes us adult disciples from these children is that we think that we are different, grown-up, and in charge. And Jesus holds us in his arms and blesses us. It is not our in-chargeness that he holds and blesses, it is that we are his children, whether well-behaved or not.

People like to always get an advantage, to show that they are just a little ahead of everyone else. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to outsmart God, or to at least trick themselves into believing that whatever scheme or privilege they want to hold onto is God’s eternal plan. So these Pharisees come up and ask Jesus about marriage and divorce. Almost always, these confrontations have an agenda, the debates at this time were about when it was legitimate for a man to divorce his wife. Sometimes it helps to translate the Greek words literally, it shows the frame of mind and assumptions that were going on: They asked Jesus when it was permitted for a man to dismiss a woman. There was no question about how a woman could get rid of a man, just how the guy could be justified in getting rid of a woman. The implication is that the woman might become a burden to a man, so how could he get rid of her? The various rabbis had different positions on this, and your answer to this question defined where you stood as a teacher in Israel. So Jesus said, “What did Moses say?” The Pharisee’s answer was a man could write out a certificate and divorce the woman—they were waiting for Jesus to explain what exactly that meant, when and how, and for what reason. This is important, of course, because a guy has to figure out how to do what he wants and remained justified, and it’s important for lawyers and scholars and pastors to work it out so he does these things and still feels good.

Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t explain how to make the law of Moses work. Instead he says that it’s a colossal fail. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Divorce in this culture was a convenience for men. For the women it was a financial and social disaster. Their livelihood and prospects were pretty much completely cut off. The teachings of the rabbis and the certificate of divorce were intended to control this somewhat, to make the men more accountable, and to give the women who had been sent out at least the theoretical chance to re-marry and recover. But Jesus turns to the men and says: conforming with this regulation does not justify you, you don’t get your financial advantage, or comfort or your new young wife through appealing to Moses. Jesus refers to the creation—that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. A family is formed and it is not up to the arbitrary choice of a person to break that up. You can’t just make your choices holy by appealing to some provision in the law—that woman is part of you, not a possession to be discarded. But things do happen in this real world, divorces occur, families are torn apart and people are hurt. Because of our hardness of heart, provisions have to be made. Provisions are made for people to live. He took them up in his arms, and embraced them, laid his hands on them and blessed them.

Barely three months after a racist gunman claimed the lives of the martyrs of Charleston, we are mourning the deaths of innocents in Oregon. President Obama has said, about our famously lax gun laws: “I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up.” We are going to see the politicians and the NRA claim: it’s not the gun, it’s the person. But make no mistake about it and I am saying this as someone who grew up in the West where every family had guns: it’s the gun, guns everywhere for any idot to pick up. We need—as Christians—not to rationalize, not to justify, not to listen to professional handlers—but to ensure that the children will be safe and grow up to show us the kingdom of God.

The love of God and the grace of God is not so that we can be grown-up, dominant, have the upper hand or be rewarded for being the cleverest. We enter the Kingdom of God as a little child: loved, forgiven, given another chance. Loved; not encouraged in hurting other children, but in being cared for and learning to be a caring person. God gives his grace, and provisions for us to make it in this hard world filled with difficult choices, not to make it okay to harden our hearts, but to let us live, to experience becoming one flesh, one body in Christ. He embraces us and blesses us, not because we are the grown-ups, or the experts or the leaders, but because we are his children, partaking of his flesh, and being healed so that we can go out again into that world.