Month: November 2015

Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down…”

Today is the beginning of the season of Advent, the season where we look for God to arrive among us, when we prepare for that baby to be born in that cattle shed and to transform us and the rest of the universe. Even though Thanksgiving Day is over, and Black Friday has passed, the church doesn’t immediately join with the rest of the world in big spending supercharged by holiday cheeriness. We take a moment—actually, a short season—and reflect:  What does it mean that God is coming among us? What could it mean?

It is more than buying a bit of happiness at a dark time of the year. In the Anglican tradition, this is the time of year, more than at any other time, that we listen to the prophets. Today the prophet Jeremiah speaks: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And Jesus speaks a prophecy: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the world will be shaken.”

We are seeing that—people are fainting from fear and foreboding—the powers of the heavens are shaken. We look at this world and there are signs that frighten everyone. Anger, hatred and fear breed fear, anger and hatred. People die, and yet more prepare to kill, to punish or to hate. These are signs, but how should we understand them? The temptation is to despair or to join in the fear and all the rest. But the Gospel says something different: “Stand up! Raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!”

The Gospel of Jesus comes as a surprise—pretty much all the time. The temptation is to think like everyone else, which is to say, to default to looking for power and privilege. Those powers and privileges are real—to some they seem to be the powers of the heavens—but as the Son of Man appears, “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Christ did not surrender to the powers, but rather faced death, and brings us into the life of his Resurrection. The powers do their worst, but they are shaken. We have hope, not because of wishful thinking, but because of the presence of Christ’s love among us.

Jesus’ prophecy shifts gears, he tells a parable, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leavesfig tree sprouting you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” Life is there. Life is here, God’s love is here, we know it, we experience it. Every Sunday I offer the bread and wine, and up to the altar rail come those beautiful children. I know God’s love is here.

We live in a world where things happen, things that people do, that can tempt us to give up … to join with those who despair, to fail to respect ourselves. Jesus tells us to be on guard against that. “Do not let your hearts be weighed down,” by fear, or by self-destructive choices, or by buying into the anger and hate that are marketed by those powers of this world. If we’re not watchful, and expecting the Kingdom to appear, the worries of this world can block out the truth and distract us from the coming of the Kingdom of God.

This season is a season of celebration. We celebrate the coming of the Kingdom, we look for his coming. And when the Son of Man appears to judge the living and the dead, what do we see? Do we see a mighty king with sword in hand, leading a huge army with tanks and guns and fighter planes? No. We see a baby, born in the humblest circumstances to parents that nobody cared about. He is the sign of the judgment of the living and the dead—that fragile human life, the least and most vulnerable among us, that is God’s choice to live among us as one of us.

Last weekend, I participated in a presentation about the future of theological education at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. Near the end of the presentation, the Dean of the Chapel at Morehouse College and the director of the Martin Luther King Center, Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., got up to comment on the presentation. He spoke about personalism—an approach to theology that was influential when  he was a doctoral student along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He talked about how it meant that the essential thing is the importance of persons—respect for people, no matter who they are, for their dignity, their life, the possibility for them to have hope.

We had nearly newborn babies among us too on All Saints, when we  baptized Demetrius and Amiyah. We affirmed our baptismal covenant and made promises to uphold them and their parents and godparents as they—and we—seek the life of Christ—a life of love, a life of hope, a life of respecting the dignity of every human person. We are with Demetrius and Amiyah as they wait for their first Christmas and listen to the prophets.

We live with them in hope, we wait for the coming of that baby who brings with us the courage to remain alert, to not let our hearts be weighed down, to celebrate with joy the coming of the Lord.

As St. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonika in our lesson this morning, he writes also to us: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

 

Not one stone

A sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Not one stone will be left here upon another.

When you read a text in a different tone of voice, its meaning changes. For instance, in our Gospel today, most of the time you hear it in an angry voice, a prophecy of violence and destruction. Christians have interpreted it as the prediction of the destruction of the temple by the Romans, and the judgment of God on the Jews.

What if we read this in a different tone of voice?

So Jesus and his disciples finish watching the people, including the widow with the two tiny coins, putting money Stones ruined templein the treasury, and they walk out of the temple. And one of the guys says, “Wow, look! Those are big buildings and look how big the stones that they are built with are!”

Then Jesus thinks for a while.

And he says, “ You know, the time will come when not one of those stones will be left on top of the other.”

We build edifices. Huge buildings. Churches, skyscrapers, systems of roads. They appear to us to be permanent. We invest a lot of ourselves in thinking of these works as permanent—that somehow they will last forever.  The other day, I was reading a book that dealt with the history of New York City in the early 1800s, about 200 years ago. It described some of the physical aspects of New York City at that time. Most of the land above 14th Street was open country, with farms and estates. There was a beautiful church, called St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Parish, with a beautiful expansive lawn out front. Actually it was a park, and it was called St. John’s Park. The park gave way to the freight rail yards of the New York Central Railroad and the church was torn down to accommodate the widening of Varick Street. Now that area is the approach to the Holland Tunnel on Canal Street.  There is no trace of that church building now, even though it was significant in the history of our city.

That disciple was so impressed by the buildings, but Jesus … not so much.  Jesus is not so worried about the buildings of the temple or the city.  There’s all that rhetoric about the timeless and eternal city, but it is God and God’s love that are forever, not the placement of stones, or roofs or gardens.

Most people are worried about these things. When will we lose things, when will bad things happen to us? The disciples were worried—they took Jesus aside. They try to pin him down, when? What will happen? How will this be accomplished?

Jesus responds—“Don’t be led astray.” “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed, this will take place.”   “But people will come in my name and say, ‘Look!’ – I know what’s happening! Look, here is the way of God!”

Just as I was writing this I heard about the shootings in Paris. One story said 18 people killed, another said at least 40 in 3 attacks. Killings and rumors of killings. Very real, right now. We have had far too many this year, far too much senseless violence. And all sorts of people will be telling us what this means, what God is saying. And most of them will be speaking about their own fear, about their own solutions and about whom they are angry with. Most of what most of us think, when something like this happens, is like the disciples: “What about the stones? What about the bricks? What about the things we have constructed?” And nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom—earthquakes and famines. And many will be afraid, and many will be angry.  And many will decide to be false teachers, and tell you exactly what to do and when God will do this, and how they really represent Jesus.

And none of that helps. Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed.” He is here among us, and though it was less than a week before his own crucifixion, he said, “Don’t be led astray.” Don’t panic—all these things that pass away, and these things that frighten us, and cause us to mourn are but the first fruits of the kingdom of God.

The Gospel of Mark continues with exhortations to courage, to witness to Christ, wherever we may be called upon to witness. But what is it to which we should witness? It is the hospitality of God, his gift and welcome in Jesus Christ.  Remember, this lesson started as he was walking out from the temple. And what had he been doing there? Jesus was watching that humble widow, doing a very ordinary thing, yet something that took great courage. She was giving of her substance for the sake of others. It was only two cents, but it was the full down payment on the Kingdom of God. That is what Jesus was teaching his disciples. There is no better time to witness to being Christ’s ambassadors of welcome to others, than in the midst of frightening events, and uncertain change. The Kingdom of God is being born among us, and indeed it is led by those who fear they have nothing. For the one thing that is worth giving in times such as these, is the love of God.

Let us pray for those who died in Paris. From our Psalm today:

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me, night after night. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

My heart, therefore is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

 

Go now to Zarephath

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

Where was Elijah when God told him to go to Zarephath?  I looked it up.  Elijah was out in the desert east of the Jordan River. Zarephath was a long way west of there on the Mediterranean coast. Elijah was hiding in a wadi. That is a kind of a creek bed that you get in the desert, which usually has dug down into the ground in sort of a canyon or ravine. A lot of times the creek is dried up, sometimes water is only in the wadi when a rainstorm causes a flash flood. Other times there is a creek at the bottom that flows, but might dry up in a drought.  Desert dwellers know that water gathers in these wadis, and even when there is no flowing water, sometimes you can dig down and discover some water in the moist underground soil. Elijah had predicted a three year drought when he confronted King Ahab, and he had been on the run from him ever since.  The thing is, the drought was real, so real that the wadi that gave him shelter and water dried up completely. So, though he had been guided to that wadi by God, Elijah had to listen to a new word from God, adapt, and move to the new place, even though it was outside the Kingdom of Israel, among the pagans, the worshippers of Baal.

When he arrives at that village, there is that widow, gathering a little fuel for a meager cooking fire.  “Bring me water, and while you’re up, a little cake of bread too.” The woman didn’t question the appropriateness of his demands. Giving water to a traveller was basic hospitality, something that anyone in the region would do. But when he asked for bread, her response was to explain that she had nothing. Or rather, how she had nothing to give him. It is very important to listen to this conversation: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal and a little oil in a jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

“Eat it, and die. “ This woman had been driven to the point that every alternative for her, even nourishing food, led toward death. She could not see any way to life.  Elijah said to her, “Do not fear.” Remember, Elijah came to this village because he was out of water and food. The Lord sent him to another place, but that place had run out, even of water. Elijah, and the Lord take privation seriously. But our God and Elijah’s God is the God of life. When we eat, we eat for the sake of life, not for the sake of death.

Now, we should respect this woman. She had suffered much and she had lost much. We can’t say she should have known what to do. But the worst thing that she had lost, living there in Zarephath, a town right in the middle of the land of Baal, the rain god, living there in the midst of a long drought, the thing that she had lost was the path to life. Even the meal that was supposed to nourish her had become a way station on the way to death. But the man of God, who knew about privation, and who knew that you need food and water to live, also knew the word of life for her. “Do not be afraid. Do as you have said, but first…”  But first, extend hospitality; welcome your guest; give away your fear and accept life.

The miracle is not just some random magic act. The flour and the oil lasted as a token of God’s presence, of the gift of life in the real world. The widow had been wrapped in fear, and it’s not that there was nothing to fear but the God of life was with her and brought her through. It was not then easy street, she was still impoverished, she still had barely enough to get by, but she got by, because the God of life was with her and gave her hope.

It is the same with that other widow this morning. Jesus didn’t do anything but watch her and explain. Most people, when they experience a lack of something they need, get worried, and then they decide to hold on—“I’ve got to take care of myself first, and not do anything for others until I’m taken care of.” How many times have you heard that said, or thought it yourself? That’s fear, and it cuts off our connections with others, and it lessens our life, our vitality. The widow put her two cents into the treasury. Jesus didn’t feel sorry for her. He said she gave all she had, all she had to live. And in giving that she gave away her fear, and gained life. So what do we do with this?  We could all double our tithes; that would help the church. You can check with our warden, I’m sure you can still update your pledge. But I think more to the point is to give away our fear and rejoice in the life that God has given us.

Jesus starts the Gospel reading by warning about those ecclesiastical types who look for honor and attention, with their long robes who say long prayers. Seeking comfort for themselves they devour widows’ houses. Jesus is saying, don’t follow that way of self-concern, it is wrapped in death. The real abundance is in the life of that nameless widow who gave away her fear and received the Kingdom of God in return.

Elijah stayed with that widow in Zarephath. They ate together, they were with one another when her son became sick and died, and the prophet prayed with all of his being to God, and the child was restored to life. They had enough, barely enough, throughout that drought, and then God called Elijah to return to Israel. To preach the truth, and God brought rain and restored life to the earth.

Let us pray:

O god, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he his pure; that , when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ivory Towers –Harry Nicholson on Liberal Education

I saw a Facebook post by Harry Nicholson which seemed so insightful about education, theology and the

Harry Nicholson

Harry Nicholson

church that I wanted more people to see it.  To me it has much in common with the concerns of the General Theological Seminary faculty, when we published our Declaration on The Way of Wisdom in February of 2014. In any case, we share a common Christian faith and an appreciation of the importance of depth and breadth in education, especially theological education.

With Harry’s permission, I am re-posting.

 

 

Ivory Towers

No doubt ivory towers, whether they are pillars of David or monoliths of Mammon, are constructs of the entitled. Nonetheless the popular idea that business is better suited to rule a university, seminary or parish is worse. A mature common sense, sometimes capriciously called wisdom, leads to the appreciation of best as less than ideal; Socrates tells us that Democracy is the second worst form of government (since it so resembles Tyranny in the majority’s reign over the minority) but is nonetheless the only option. Can scholarship in community produce the best priests? Only in a romantic fit of Anglophiliac longing for the good old days can we possibly believe that a residential seminary is bound to guarantee delivery of fit priests and even that lunacy would require, of course, a deliberate abjuration of English literature which plays, rather delightfully, on tropes of inept vicars and pompous bishops.

Those of us who have been subjected to or who embraced a liberal education, that is, an education whose primary goal is the production of women and men who are more skilled at asking questions than answering them, will understand that one goal of any community of learning that actually embraces question, dialogue, dialectic, and most curiously and absurdly, and necessary in the case of seminaries, prayer, is the trying of students in that fire of thinking. The idea is not to produce scholars. The idea is to produce citizens of the state or clerics of the kingdom.

I speak with the bias of one who actually did suffer a liberal education. My college was distinctly liberal which to outsiders often looked extreme, even fanatical. There were no majors. All students took what basically amounted to one class which took four years to complete and comprised among others inculcation in philosophy, music, math, and Greek. Every student was required to learn music theory in order to be able to have a reasonable discussion of the Bach Matthew Passion. Although my college had no religious affiliation and was adamantly non-Christian, we all read the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Spinoza (just to mention a few of the “religious” authors). It did not make us all into scholars, certainly not me. But I don’t know anyone from my college who doesn’t have a worldview built from a lifetime of careful questioning. Our minds, and our souls, were forged in that liberal education. My experience of the priests from General is that their priesthoods were forged in a similar way by their education at the seminary. This became abundantly clear to me the first time my husband, Wayne, and I were discussing Matthew one night after Evening Prayer, and he offered an explanation for something I asked and I asked, “Yes, Wayne, but what does the text say?” and he responded, “Oh Lord, I’ve married my New Testament professor!” (My question was not pedagogical.)

I have had three parish priests formed at General. They were all completely different. One was a fiery activist. One is a renowned scholar. And my current rector (if you can count your husband as your parish priest, which you really can’t), is almost an eidetic pastor who is only peripherally scholarly. All three have had profound parts in the development of my Christian core. I think all three experienced General in completely different ways. I’ll speak about my husband only briefly, and in doing so, I am somewhat telling a tale out of school.

One of the things that, I think, made him a very good priest indeed was a personal crisis he had when trying to survive coursework, especially in Systematic Theology. Surrounded by younger students whom he stills considers to be far smarter, and feeling woefully incompetent, he sought both spiritual and psychological guidance, and both were necessary to the formation of his priesthood. He also learned a great deal, but to get there, he had to wrestle with an angel. While it may seem that Jacob is most alone when wrestling, Jacob’s struggle is both supported by communal history and about community in the future. And that certainly was the case with my husband. Two things come to mind: (1) the curriculum was challenging, and (2) he couldn’t escape the learning community, that is, the constant presence of the students who challenged him was confounded by the necessity of living with them, of some of them becoming bosom friends. He is a good priest today, a very good one, beloved by his congregation and at the same time actually effective by “business” standards. In the decade he’s pastored the only Episcopal church in our county, it has steadily grown, if at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, application of business standards has wreaked havoc and the probable end of General. You simply cannot serve God and Mammon. Five-year plans are not appropriate in the church or in liberal academia by which, of course, I mean the most conservative, and best, kind of intellectual and spiritual institutional schooling.

We can construct as many ideas for an “ideal” seminary as there are stars in the sky. We can base them on ideas of sound business principles, modern real-world training, huzza huzza missional fervor, or ease of access (among many possibilities), but to my mind two things are absolutely necessary: scholarship and spiritual practice, both of which depend on the good faith of a community in which trust (which is how I translate the Greek “pistis”–usually translated as “faith”) is paramount.

Ultimately, the ivory towers do turn out to be the places where truly liberal aspirations bear fruit. The struggle to embrace diversity is born in them, for instance, precisely because they provide the luxury of thought and debate.

Robert Cromey, from General, taught me how to fight for my rights as a human being. Bruce Chilton, from General, taught me that one could be scholarly and Christian, and he gave me many tools to do it even while agreeing to play Gabriel in my play, “Brave Christmas,” a Gabriel who spends most of the play trying to prevent God from incarnating. My husband, from General, a far better and kinder human being than I even strive to be, teaches me, even from the pulpit, that most of us are lucky enough to experience God’s kindness, something I did not even consider until late in life.

For the last 35 years, in other words, General has supported my life as a Christian, and more importantly, as a human being, in unfathomable ways. The demise of the seminary is, for me, who never attended anything there other than Evening Prayer, a bit like the destruction of the temple, a grief beyond measure.