Month: January 2016

Love rejoices in the truth

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 31, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Today’s Epistle lesson is St. Paul’s great hymn in praise of love. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he has been discussing spiritual gifts and he arrives at the end of his discussion and points out than the one spiritual gift worth having is love.  I don’t know about anyone here, but when I look at these characteristics of love, I see that I can be occasionally a little irritable, sometimes just a little arrogant—and don’t ask my wife about the rude part. The love of God is something that we don’t always fully live into.

God’s love is always here for us, but our own love, and the love of Christians is not something that is automatic or something we can take for granted. Living together in a Christian community requires patience and forbearance, because someone is always going to be irritable, or resentful, or insist on their own way. Love rejoices in the truth—not the truth of telling others what’s wrong with them—but the truth of knowing the depths of God’s love for everyone, the truth of Jesus’ love for us and his giving himself for us.

Last week there was a little snow. And it was tough, if not outright dangerous, for most people to join us in church.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t hear my sermon because last week’s Gospel is the first part of our Gospel for today, so here is some of it again:

*****

Jesus opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That scripture that they heard said: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

*****

In today’s Gospel, the congregation hears that, and they nod their heads, and say, “Yeah, pretty good.” They probably think that THEY are the poor and the Good News is just for them. But then they look at Jesus, and they say, “Wait a minute, this is just that carpenter’s son, what gives him authority?” But Jesus explains a little more: “the prophet Elijah brought that good news to a widow outside of Israel, not to those inside, and when it came to curing lepers, the prophet Elisha cured Naaman, who was a Syrian, not any of his own people.” The Gospel spreads far beyond those that we are in our own town, the love of God extends far beyond where we ourselves are comfortable.

When the congregation realized that Jesus was saying things other than what they wanted to hear, they did what any self-respecting Cliffcongregation would do—they took the young preacher out and prepared to throw him off a cliff.

“Love does not insist on its own way; … it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”   Jesus is the love of God. He had spoken the truth at home, and he had much more to do, so he slipped away. Living in the love of God can be a slippery thing. We like to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and then simplify things by seeing only our own group as good. God’s love is bigger than ours. We are called to grow, not in our own way, or in winning more so that others lose, but in the love that rejoices in the truth.

St. Paul says, “Love never ends.” That means that our growth and change in love never ends—we are challenged by Jesus, and just as we have ahold of him, he slips away to teach more love. We think we know the will of God, but Paul teaches us, “as for knowledge, it will come to an end. …Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Jesus preaches to us, the Good News to the Poor, and we know what he means, we know the poor, we know how many deserve respect who don’t get it. But yet, we also know that Good News because he makes us uncomfortable and challenges all of us, to learn to extend our love further, to examine ourselves and live more deeply in God’s love.

“Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In the Gospel of Luke, this is the first record of Jesus’ teaching. After his baptism and his temptation in the desert, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and went around preaching in Galilee, his home region. And when he got to his home town of Nazareth, the Gospel describes that teaching.

He opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this House of hospitalityscripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we proceed through the Gospel toward Easter, it will become more and more clear what it means, that he himself is the meaning of the word of God. Today, let’s look at the text he reads: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

God is here for those who suffer and those who have needs that are more than they can handle. Yet it doesn’t just mean that God has pity on the poor or gives cosmic handouts to the needy.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a slave who was forgiven a tremendous debt, but then immediately grabbed another slave who owed him a very small debt and had him thrown in jail—being poor, or of low estate did not justify him in being unmerciful to others. Jesus did not come to change the order of things in order to privilege a different group, he came to give release to the captives, sight to the blind—a time of the Lord’s favor—when ALL the oppressed are free.

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

Jesus announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This means two things—first, it is in Jesus that these promises are fulfilled—his person and his life make the difference. Next week’s gospel lesson continues this story, and I will talk about what happens when Jesus made that announcement in my sermon next week.

But the other thing is, TODAY, the good news to the poor is announced, TODAY the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, TODAY the oppressed go free. This year is the year of the Lord’s favor, not some day in the far off future, when we get around to it, some day when the rich get tired of being rich, until, literally, Kingdom come. God is not waiting for justice, or mercy. The mercy of God, the right of those who are poor and oppressed to find freedom is right now. In Jesus, we are freed from the values that say whatever has been established by those in power is how it has to be. God’s mercy is here, in Jesus Christ. In us, in his mercy, we live as merciful, in his hope, we are generous and share our lives, in his courage and his way of the cross, we courageously face the difficulties that this world has brought and will continue to bring. We live in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Once again, let us pray in the words of our collect for today:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Do whatever he tells you

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016

The mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

The Gospel of John is punctuated by a series of stories that make their point through humor. People encounter Jesus, talk with him and misunderstand altogether what he’s saying. In the story of the wedding at Cana, it may not be that Jesus’ mother completely misunderstood him, but I think that what happened can be understood pretty humorously.

If we read through the story of the Gospel in John to get to today’s Gospel, here’s where we are. John the Baptist predicted the One who was to come. Then he sees Jesus, and says “Behold the Lamb of God.” Next, two of John’s disciples go and talk with Jesus and become his disciples. Then they go and find Peter and Nathanael and they become his disciples, too. Immediately after that, Jesus and his disciples (it’s not clear whether there were four disciples, Andrew, Philip, Peter and Nathanael, or whether there were more) Jesus and his disciples start walking from Judea to Galilee. After three days they show up at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I’m sure they were welcome at the wedding. But it is not clear whether they had received invitations and sent their RSVP and a gift. At least one reliable scholar has pointed out that at Jewish weddings at that time, the amount of wine available was directly related to the amount of gifts that were received. In other words, gifts were a form of RSVP in ancient Israel. Like us, they didn’t want to make too many reservations with the caterer, which in their case, meant having enough wine. Weddings were probably even a bigger percentage of people’s income in those days.

So in this passage, at least five, young, vigorous, healthy men show up unexpected. And probably thirsty from the journey. And the party ensues. After a while Jesus’ mother walks up to him and says, “Jesus. … They. Are. Running. Out. Of. Wine.” And Jesus response was basically, “Eh.” But then he says, “My hour has not yet come.” Somehow, Mary understood that something was going to happen, even if she didn’t know exactly what.  She said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”

The water goes into the jars, and when they draw out a cup, it is wine. Very good wine. Wine is a sign and symbol of life and abundance. It wasn’t an every day beverage—it marked celebrations and feasts. The Gospel of John emphasizes that this was Jesus’ first sign, at this wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ sign was bringing life in abundance—the wine was gone, the party was near to falling apart, and Jesus performed his sign—the glory of God was manifested and the feast continued.  Jesus’ mother had not expected this sign—even she did not know what to expect of Jesus. The glory of God is always a surprise, and frequently the surprise is funny—the joke is on us—the religious types who take ourselves so seriously. Our psalm today says it well, “How priceless is your love, O God! Your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings. They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.”

No one was expecting this unannounced traveler to produce over a hundred gallons of choice wine for them. The abundance of God always comes from sources unpredicted. This week, we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who would have predicted the effects his life would have all over the world? Most of his life was struggle, and he stood for justice against great opposition, but out of his struggle emerged a spirit of healing for all people. Martin is among the saints from whom we see the hope of God.

The British religion journalist Ruth Gledhill remarked on another person this week, “The saint emerging from this sad hour is not the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor any leader of the Global South churches. It is the Primate of The Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.” She was referring to the difficult meeting that took place this Bishop Curryweek of the Primates—that is to say the senior archbishops—of all the national churches of the Anglican Communion.  The results of that were disappointing, and indeed, distressing for many.  The Primates recommended that representatives of the Episcopal Church not vote on committees that make doctrinal and ecumenical decisions for the Anglican Communion for the next three years. This is not removal from the Anglican Communion—most of the real activities of the Anglican Communion, which are relationships between churches and programs like the Carpenter’s Kids—will continue unchanged. The Primates objected to the actions of General Convention that allow same gender persons to be married. Before they voted, Bishop Curry spoke to them:

Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome … Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”

Curry went on to tell the primates: “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.

Bishop Michael Curry lives in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.  He knows and teaches that abundant life is possible, but it is only possible through the struggle for justice, through insisting that God’s love is for all of God’s people. Is he a saint? We are all God’s saints, because that word saint, means a holy person of God. When we see clearly that a person is living and witnessing to the holy calling of our Holy God, it shines out in God’s splendor and glory that they are saints. Does that make them more than human? It does not. Bishop Michael was reflecting Christ’s light this week, even if next week he makes all the same missteps we all do. The same could be said for the life of Dr. King. The same could be said for any of us.

Dr. King and Bishop Curry know about that party with Jesus, they receive abundant life along with all those other wedding guests. We are invited to that party, to rejoice along with them, to celebrate the Kingdom of God, which emerges unexpectedly, even humorously. And we are invited to serve Jesus—as Mary, his mother, said to the other servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

 

With you I am well pleased

A sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, First Sunday after Epiphany

January 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
A month ago, I preached about John the Baptist, from a text just a few verses earlier in the Gospel of Luke. John preached that people should receive a baptism of repentance. The word that is translated repentance means “turning back.” Turning back to God, turning back to God’s righteousness, turning back to righteous behavior.  People asked him questions and he gave simple, direct answers: “What should we do?”—“Share what you have with those who don’t have anything.” When the tax collectors asked that he said, “Just collect what you’re assigned, don’t line your pockets with whatever you can take.” To the occupying soldiers: “Don’t extort, bully, or blackmail people.” In other words, follow the law; do what decent people know they should do; don’t try to get out of your responsibilities or get the advantage of people who are weaker or more vulnerable than you.

Simple. Maybe too simple for some. The problem is—and we all know this—is that people do their best to dodge these simple responsibilities, by making them seem more complex, by creating distractions to get out of things that might be a bit uncomfortable, or a lot uncomfortable. We all do it, at least some of the time.

We have been talking for the last few weeks of Jesus, the Son of God, coming into the world. He was there, with all the other people listening to John the Baptist. And he too came to be baptized.  Why? Wasn’t he perfect? Wasn’t he God’s Son? Yes. He was God’s Son come among us, as one of us. A human being from God’s perspective, living as we might, living as we can. As one of us he was baptized to turn us around to God’s righteousness. Turn all of us back, not just those who are courageous enough, or honest enough to follow John the Baptist’s challenge. And this call isn’t only for those who are somehow purer than the rest of us, or have nothing left to lose, so what’s the difference—might as well follow.  The Son of God has come to turn us all to God’s righteousness.

But how does he do that? What does that mean?

The voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus is not John the Baptist, he embodies God’s love and mercy. When John talked about the one who was to come, that is, Jesus, he spoke about God’s judgment: “His winnowing fork is in his hand… the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Yet the Spirit descends on Jesus who represents God’s mercy. God’s judgment and God’s mercy might be the same thing. If you look into the eyes of Jesus, who knows you like a wise mother or grandmother would know you, can you really say, “Oh, really it’s someone else’s fault. I’ll use that money that’s reserved for the poor in a much better way than they would. The world will be a better place if I’m a lot more comfortable?” Perhaps you can. But Jesus brings God’s mercy, even to those who have a worm gnawing at their insides because they have lied to the one who loves them most. Jesus, the Son of God, lives among us, as we should live with one another. Willing to turn, and return again to the love of God. He receives the baptism of John in the Jordan River, so that if we turn away from God, and use games or violence or falsehood so that we climb over others or put them down, Jesus is still there with God’s mercy, saying: Turn to God’s righteousness, to God’s love Owyhee_River Canyon and be saved. God’s mercy is demanding, but not defeating. Jesus came down to the water of that desert river to bring hope for the whole world.

The lectionary leaves out a few verses of this passage of Luke’s gospel. They inform us that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee had John imprisoned for his preaching. Jesus didn’t come down into that water to make things easy for himself, or for any of us. Jesus went down in the water to bring God’s love to us—particularly in difficult times.

We join Jesus in his baptism, in our baptism we join the Kingdom of God. It’s not a contest, or an achievement. It’s an invitation home. That dove descended from heaven, and landed on Jesus—this is my beloved… the spirit descends on us as well. It is not a matter of signs or display, it is God’s healing love that we are talking about, not some instrument of our own. We—each one of you here—are God’s beloved. He brings forth the fruit, the ripe and nourishing grain, of lives simply lived with him, along the path with Jesus.

From today’s lesson from Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Um … about that American Libraries article we wrote

Librarians are about the fair and unimpeded sharing of information. The publisher of American Libraries apparently thinks that the promotion of business relationships with commercial vendors trumps that.

Stewart Varner

As a professional rule, I try to keep things positive. I like to be a cheerleader for all the great people out there and avoid boosting the signal on a bunch of negativity.

However, situations compel me to devote this one post to something totally crappy.

TL;DR: Patricia Hswe and I wrote an article for American Libraries and the editors added some quotes from a vendor talking about their products without telling us. We asked them to fix it and they said no.

Because American Libraries refused to clarify what happened, we decided to clarify it ourselves. What follows is our second (and hopefully happier) attempt at collaborative writing. This little blog does not have quite the reach of that big glossy magazine so please feel free to share as widely as you want. As always, let me know if you have any questions!

svarner@email.unc.edu  ||  @stewartvarner

***

If you are a member of…

View original post 1,181 more words

Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

January 3, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

Today is the tenth day of Christmas, the church’s annual festival of the Incarnation. It is the Second Sunday after Christmas. Each year, we focus on something in Jesus’ life that happened after his birth.  It also has a beautiful collect, that sums up our calling as Christians:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

When I think about dignity, or a person of dignity, I usually envision someone strong, calm, confident. A person old_chevy01who has earned the respect of others and who gets it.  So it is sort of ironic that the Gospel lesson is basically about a young couple that throws their belongings into the back of an old Chevy and jumps in the car with their kid and heads south, out of town.

Of course the pictures always show them with a donkey or burro, and Mary wearing a blue cloak and veil, but for those of us who didn’t grow up in the deserts of Palestine with limited means of transportation, it’s better to think of a beat-up old car, than a picturesque ride through the wilderness. Heading out of town at midnight with just what you can throw together is something that happens, particularly to young people with limited resources—jobs are lost, rent is due, family elsewhere is in need, or … perhaps there is a war in your country, or crops are failing. In any of these cases, this sudden flight does not feel very dignified to those who have to flee, and usually people looking at them don’t regard them as having dignity, and seldom do they give respect to the refugees.

So Joseph and Mary and their toddler were refugees in a foreign country.  They had no real rights, and no security. When they returned, they didn’t go back to Bethlehem, which was basically out in the suburbs of the big city of Jerusalem, they went way upstate, to a little no-account country town called Nazareth, because Joseph was warned in a dream that there was still danger for them in Judea.

That little toddler, Jesus, lived an early life that was not so much different from that of many children in this world and this country. He had loving parents, but security and stability were not theirs to give. And we look around, and many people, including many people who proudly proclaim themselves to be Christians, refuse to regard those children and those parents as having dignity that must be respected.

Nowadays, it seems as if people think that it is wealth or power or influence that are what gives people dignity. But the Gospels make clear that it is God that confers dignity on human beings. And he came as a baby in the most humble of circumstances, to parents who weren’t even sure they could afford enough gas to get that Chevy to Egypt.  Yet is was to him that the sages from the farthest corners of the world brought gifts, signifying their respect for his dignity and the overwhelming grandeur of God’s gift to us.

The Collect begins: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature”—the dignity of human nature is created by God—and if we pay attention, even when dignity has been torn down by our lack of respect for the dignity of God’s creation—it is restored, not by our niceness, or the benevolence of human beings—but by God’s action in that most unexpected of places:  a child, born of humble and hard-pressed parents, who lived a blameless life, but was executed as a criminal because he was courageous and lived the truth for all of us.

In the service of baptism, we are all asked this question: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” In that, we follow Jesus. We receive dignity from God by acknowledging that God has bestowed that dignity on others.

Jesus was a refugee in this world from a very early age. In some sense even at his birth, his family were refugees. He came from a powerless family and throughout his life, his only power was the love of God. It is in that power that we live, in the abundance of God’s love.  The riches that give life are those of God’s love, his power to bring forth the dignity of every person.

As the prophet Jeremiah has told us today:

The Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. … Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year.