Month: December 2015

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace

A sermon for Watch Night, New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Tonight we end the year of 2015 and we observe the Feast of the Holy Name, which falls on January first of 2016. The Gospel lesson is about Jesus receiving his name—on the eighth day, according to Jewish law Mary and Joseph had their baby circumcised and at that point he received his name: Jesus. But for us, that’s not just any baby, and it’s not just any name. We continue our celebration of the incarnation and Jesus is the name of God among us—alive and real, no abstraction.

The Old Testament lesson is not about circumcision or naming children. It is the blessing which the priests of Israel were instructed to give to the people. The last line of the lesson is, “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” When we read this blessing in most translations, there is something that is easy to miss. The blessing says, “The LORD bless you and keep you”  in most translations. But in Hebrew, there is a different word there that was not pronounced, even from before the time of Jesus. Out of reverence, respect and fear of the One, the Holy, the Eternal God that no one has ever seen, orthodox Jews do not pronounce the name of God.  But in this blessing, when you read the text, that name—written as four consonants—Y-H-W-H without the YHWHvowels needed to pronounce it—that name occurs three times. Some scholars believe that it was pronounced Yahweh. So the blessing would be: Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you, and be gracious to you.

This blessing puts the Holy Name of God on the people. The name is not some generic abstraction. It is the name of the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who before that appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, and long before that who had called Abraham, to make him a people. The Holy Name signifies God among us.  And the angel told Mary to name him Jesus.

We are blessed by the presence of God with us at the end of this year. 2015 has been a difficult year.  If you look in the news, there is violence all over. All over the world, and violence and fear in every sector of public life. There are wars and terrorist attacks around the globe. Over a hundred people were killed in one attack in Paris. Millions of Syrians have had to flee the killing and destruction in their own country—many have died in the process.  In our own country gun violence continues to increase. We particularly notice when people go into public places and kill people they don’t know: a college campus in Oregon, a women’s health center in Colorado, a holiday party at an agency that served clients with developmental disabilities in California, a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The violence makes people fearful and angry and looking for over-simple solutions. They bring more violence and fear into this world. Fearful people see danger in broad categories of people: all immigrants, all Muslims; perhaps all Republicans or all Democrats. Fear has grown to the point that some have taken to fearing, even hating, pretty much everybody who doesn’t look or think like them.

Recently, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict the police officer who shot Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old, who had been playing with a toy gun in a park. Police have a difficult and dangerous job, but the numbers of African Americans killed at their hands is totally out of proportion. Professional law enforcement officers should respond to situations by evaluating the circumstances and increasing the safety of all people, not by giving vent to anger; and not by building anger on fear of entire categories of people.

As politics rev up for a presidential election, some seek to exploit people’s fear and to increase their fear and anger. This is not moral. Winning an election or a nomination by harnessing hate is a mockery of democracy and it is the opposite of Christian faith.

At the end of this difficult year, we watch and pray. We are not alone, we pray with others, Christians and non-Christians—we wait and look for peace. Peace is not something we can make, especially not by exercising power. Peace is something that we become. We become people of peace through God’s grace and God’s blessing.

When Pope Francis visited our country this fall, he spoke to Congress. Here is a brief excerpt of what he had to say:

But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.

God can free us from that enemy within—the enemy of hate, built on fear. It takes courage, however, for Christians to follow Jesus, and take his name into their hearts—fear does not magically disappear in this world, it is only the love of God that overcomes fear.

We wait, and we pray for God to bless us, to banish our fear and to give us his blessing. And in blessing us, God puts the Name of our Lord Jesus in our hearts.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,

And give you peace.

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The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known

A sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion. To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Thursday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the third full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. allan-rohan-crite-Baby JesusToday we celebrate and rejoice in his coming. This afternoon, to continue our celebration, the young people of this church, that is to say, the church of the twenty-first century, will present a pageant, recounting the birth of our Savior at the beginning of the first century.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise you God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

 

Merry Christmas!

All deserve God’s love

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

St. Luke describes the birth of Jesus with more detail than is found in any other Gospel. He begins by putting the story in a political context. Emperor Augustus—the Roman Emperor, everyone knew who that was—the emperor who made Rome into an Empire after the end of the Roman Republic. Quirinius, a Roman official, was governor of the province of Syria and had the authority to organize the taxation of Palestine.

This child was born into this real world, a world with its stresses, and dangers and joys.  Jesus was not an abstract child living in an idealized world where everything is comfortable and idyllic.  This feast of the Incarnation, of The Word become Flesh, is not about some timeless, mythological thing, it’s about a baby, born in a real time and place, whose parents faced a world as complex and frightening as our own. Things were happening in the world around him, things that affected the lives of everyone around him, including Jesus’ parents and all the people of Judea and Galilee.

God sent his only son to be among us, to comfort us and to deliver us into his presence. That was as true in Jesus’ time as it is today. Back then, there were governments and wars and bandits and terrorists and insecurity, just like now.  People suffered hardship and loss then, as they do now, even in this holiday season. We aren’t exempt. Ten years ago today, on Christmas Eve, Father Wendell Roberts, who ministered among us as the Rector of this church for 40 years passed away.  His family mourns him, and we mourn a courageous and compassionate leader, who ministered here in the South Bronx, during some of this city’s most difficult times. Others mourn the passing of friends and family, or of health, or of a dream deferred. Sometimes holidays can be the hardest times for those who mourn.

And the angel said, “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing good news of great joy.” This child Jesus, he is the assurance of the love of God, in times that are good and in times that are difficult. The prophet Isaiah says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. We rejoice because the living God remembers us, indeed he doesn’t remember us, he is with us, he is part of us. While there are times that we may feel afraid, or bereft, or tired, or discouraged; God is here to comfort us and protect us, to bear our every burden. Even in this infant, we have the presence of God’s power. It is not the power of empire, of Roman legions. It is not the power of intimidation or violence. The power of God is peace and the courage to love in every circumstance.

Allan Ford            Last Sunday several of us traveled to Staatsburg, New York for a mass where the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of Canon Allan Ford was celebrated. I don’t really know Father Ford, but he grew up in this congregation. At the end of the service he spoke about his call to the ministry.  I was very moved by this gentle, soft-spoken man. He spent much of his ministry working in prisons, with the homeless and with those suffering from addiction. He spoke of his experience of the love of God, and he said that in every case, he wanted those to whom he ministered to know they were loved by God, and that they should never, ever feel that they were not good enough to deserve God’s love.

Jesus is here, because we all deserve God’s love. Every one who comes through the door of the church and every one who we encounter on the street, or at work or at home deserves God’s love. God has made that choice and come among us, in this time and in this place.

 

Merry Christmas!

 

Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Stir up your Power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

I think this is one of the most beautiful and powerful collects in the prayer book. “Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” We look around this world, with so many frightened and angry people, so many looking for a way to use power to protect themselves, that we may forget.  The only power that counts is

You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation

You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation

God’s power.  What does God’s power do? Is it explosions and air strikes and gun battles and triumph over other armies? No. It is bountiful grace. And bountiful mercy. The prophet Zephaniah says it this way, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” The presence of God brings healing to us, and deliverance from all those things we fear, because the power of the living God is the power of mercy.

Again, in today’s lesson from the letter to the church at Philippi we read: “Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

“The Lord is near.” That’s the kind of pronouncement that we usually associate with the dark and dreary judgment of God. And it is about the judgment of God, but that judgment is not condemnation, but deliverance.  It is in this world, with all its violence and fear and uncertainty that God’s mercy comes to deliver us. We live in hope, not because we are wishful thinkers, but because God is here with us, God’s love is among us, it is greater than our own love, or our fear or anything else. This season of Advent we await the judgment of God, and we rejoice at the same time, because we know, that as God’s power is stirred up, it will overcome the results of our sins and those that are all too obvious in the people of this world around us. The power of God brings mercy and peace—not of our making but of God among us.

The Gospel lesson today is once again about John the Baptist.  I have a particular affection for that guy. Today’s lesson has one of my favorite lines, especially when I’m angry or in a grumpy mood: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John can be a bit scary. The way he’s depicted–as an ascetic, living in the wilderness, practicing self-denial, dressed roughly and strangely–makes it seem like he’s embracing a life that is so radical that we just can’t get there. Radical, he might have been, because he was challenging people to change things they didn’t want to change, but listen to what he actually said:

To tax collectors who asked, “What should we do?” -–“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To soldiers—“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

These are simply reasonable, they don’t overturn any law, they don’t make anyone impoverished. Except they are radical, because these categories of people were notorious for using their positions to gain wealth by dominating other people, and profiting by impoverishing others. Likewise when he says to everyone, “If you have two coats, share with those who have none” and “Share your food with those who don’t have.” That’s a little closer to home of course, because it says that to everyone who has enough to share, even when they aren’t wealthy.  Even though John the Baptist lets no one off the hook, what he is saying is not crazy, or impossible—it requires unselfishness, and trust in God to provide for tomorrow, rather than stockpiling for ourselves while others are in need.

We live in a country where values that are just the opposite of this have been promoted, especially over the past 30 or 40 years. “Greed is good” was the famous line from a famous movie. Somehow the idea that having money is the same as being virtuous has gotten established in our culture. And this has happened at just the same time that more of that money is in the hands of fewer people. God is the god of life, not the God of money, no matter how people may twist logic and try to persuade us that gathering wealth is the same or better than serving the common good.  This is where that “Brood of Vipers” statement comes in—John was talking to the elites of Judah, especially those who were ostentatiously religious.  Those who used their position to make it seem as if they were the ones in the right, while being self-serving all along. We religious folks are often “sorely hindered by our sins” because we use whatever means to appear like we are righteous all the time, even if it means fudging the facts a little bit. That’s why God uses prophets like John to call us, not somebody else, but us to repent—we are in need of God’s grace and mercy, not approval of our own righteousness.

That mercy comes in Jesus Christ—born among us to live with us. He leads us into joy through his grace and mercy. We heard it this morning from St. Paul, who was writing from a prison cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Guide our feet into the way of peace

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Today instead of a psalm, we read the Canticle of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. In the Gospel of Luke, it interprets the meaning of John:

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the BaptistJohn the Baptizer was a tough guy. There was nothing soft about him. He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. And those who profited by power in the system reacted to him with violence. Ultimately they cut off his head. But these things can distract us from what John was about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The song continues, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We live in dark times, violent times, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. Since we were last here in this church together, another mass murder in a public building has taken place.  For a couple of days everyone was darting all over, asking: “Who’s to blame?”  “Who can we be angry at?”  “Who should we be anxious about?” “Is is terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism. Such acts are designed to provoke fear, to get attention, to affect the world by a show of power and violence.  It really, really, does not matter what the terrorists believe or who their targets are. Their target, their aim, is to suck us all in to increased participation in the violence and fear of violence in this world. They are the agents of chaos, fear and anger—that is to say, they are exactly, precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.

John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Step back from the chaos of violence, the chaos of fear.” Comfort ye my people, says the prophet. Prepare the straight way of the Lord—the superhighway of Peace, not winding around every up and down, but going straight through to peace—without fear, without revenge.

It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. I remember how angry I was after 9/11. But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.

This season of Advent is about “the tender compassion of God” which guides us into the way of peace.  The world is filled with lazy cowards who think that peace is a passive thing, that you don’t have to do anything about it, to bring it about. So look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially John the Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. I can’t think of anyone in the whole Bible tougher than John the Baptist. Except Jesus. The path of peace is not the path of fearfulness, and it is certainly not the path of surrender. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.

Yet, peace is not something we can achieve alone. It is only the presence and action and judgment of the living God that brings peace. In the lesson from the prophet Malachi today it says, “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap … he will purify.”

We will be purified from anger, and fear, and violence and clinging to power, by that messenger of God’s peace. The righteousness of God comes into this world not through being powerful but by serving that one who is powerless, the one who John foretold. We bless the Lord, the God of Israel. He is here. His salvation is among us. He lights our way, and guides us toward peace. It is not in some sort of program that you write up in 500 pages and send off to be implemented. God guides us toward peace each day, in us, between us and through us. It is in our lives that peace grows.

St. Paul got himself put in prison toward the end of his life. He wrote to his friends at the church in Philippi which he had founded. He knew them, and he was confident, not simply in them, but in what God was doing among them. It could not have been an easy time for the congregation or for Paul. This is what he said to them, as was read this morning:

“I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. … And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

For the glory and praise of God may your love overflow, as God guides you in the way of peace.

My Emancipation From American Christianity

And not just the fundamentalists. Christians across the board have confused the principality of church with the gospel of the Prince of Peace.

john pavlovitz

chain-breaking-freeI used to think that it was just me, that it was my problem, my deficiency, my moral defect.

It had to be.

All those times when I felt like an outsider in this American Jesus thing; the ever-more frequent moments when my throat constricted and my heart raced and my stomach turned.

Maybe it came in the middle of a crowded worship service or during a small group conversation. Maybe while watching the news or when scanning a blog post, or while resting in a silent, solitary moment of prayer. Maybe it was all of these times and more, when something rose up from the deepest places within me and shouted, “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t be part of this!”

These moments once overwhelmed me with panic and filled me with guilt, but lately I am stepping mercifully clear of such things.

What I’ve come to realize is that it certainly is me, but not in the…

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