Month: February 2016

The place on which you are standing is holy ground.

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The place on which you are standing is holy ground.

In today’s lesson we see Moses. He had an interesting history—one we read about in the book of Exodus.  But at the moment we run into him, it is almost as if he has no history. He has broken off contact from the family who raised him—a different family from the one he was born in. He was a long way from his original home—he may have been out on the coast of Arabia. He had married a woman out in that distant place and was working for her father. And that job, tending sheep, was neither idyllic and romantic nor very well paying. Moses was making do as he had to, as best as he could.

He was tending sheep out in the arid mountains of the Sinai peninsula, running the sheep, trying to find enough for them to eat. In the midst of this drudgery, Moses sees a fire. Or rather, he sees fire, and when he looks at it, there is a bush with all this fire—but nothing is burning. The bush is there, the fire is coming out, but the branches and leaves don’t catch fire—they aren’t burned up.

“Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” All of a sudden, in the middle of this ungrounded life of his, Moses was standing on Holy Ground. And he didn’t know what to do.

The voice continued: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses didn’t even know his father. But God still called him. Here he was far from the land where he was born and grew up, which was Egypt, and far from the land of the Israelites, the people who were his parents, but whom he never really knew. He was up on a mountain, not far from Arabia, and the God of Israel was speaking to him. “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry. I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

And Moses said something that I believe can be loosely translated as: “Huh?”

Most of us think, “If God talked to me out loud, I’d be right there, ready to go.” But, in the real world, Moses was standing there with a bunch of sheep that belonged to somebody else. “How am I supposed to do all that? Face Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites who don’t trust me and have no reason to trust me?” Moses tried to duck, to get out of being responsible and to avoid being generous with his life, as most of us are inclined to do.

God said, “I will be with you.”

Moses was there on Holy Ground—listening to the One, the holiest of holies, the Truth, the Life, the Way. This would be an astounding religious experience.

Back when I was in school, all the fashionable writers talked about “peak experiences” and “mountaintop experiences.”  What they were referring to was the experience that Moses is having, right here in this lesson, generalized for their mid-twentieth century audience.

But if you look closely at what is happening here, it is not about Moses, it is not a great mystical or euphoric experience for him.  He is on that mountain to be sent by God: “I hear their cry on account of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” God sends Moses for the sake of his people, for the sake of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. Moses isn’t being rewarded at all, he’s not having a great experience for his own bliss. God is reaching out with compassion for his people’s sake.

And Moses is sent to lead the Israelites for God’s glory, not his own—yet, how many would reject Moses? How many would fear the disruption of leaving behind their oppression? Over the next forty years, Moses heard the complaints of some who longed for the security of their oppression in Egypt. From the flames the voice told Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them that I AM sent you.” The one who exists alone from all time and to all time is the God of their ancestors and he judges that they should be brought up from their oppression.

We talk about God’s judgment a lot. And we usually think that it means something bad for somebody, either for ourselves or for our adversaries, or at least somebody.  We think that judgment means that God is angry and out to get somebody. The judgment of God has consequences in the real world, but those consequences are the consequences of God’s compassion. God came to deliver the Israelites out of his compassion, and the Pharaoh is portrayed as totally lacking in compassion and opposed to compassion. It did not work out so well for Pharaoh to fight against the compassion of God.

We live in a time when compassion is difficult to find, especially in the public arena. Fear and distrust multiply. And thus the prophets and Jesus were sent to the people to tell them to repent, for the judgment of God is at hand—the compassion of God is arrayed against those forces seeking to use fear, anger and death to control and oppress people and destroy compassion. This is a time of difficulty, perhaps even tribulation.

And Jesus tells a parable. A landowner looks at his garden and there’s a fig tree, which hasn’t born fruit, and his first response is to have it cut down. But the gardener says, wait. Have patience, have compassion, let me work with the tree; fertilize it, water it, cultivate it. In time, it may yet bear fruit.

God’s compassion, God’s judgment and our hope for freedom from oppression are the same thing. Jesus heals us, and leads us with him to Jerusalem without fear. In Moses, God brought his compassion to Israel. In Jesus, God brings compassion to all of us, blessing us with freedom and eternal life.

On this last Sunday of Black History Month, let’s conclude with the Collect for the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant, you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at

Martin Luther King, Jr. , Ralph Bunche  and Abraham Heschel from an exhibit on Moses

Martin Luther King, Jr. , Ralph Bunche
and Abraham Heschel from an exhibit on Moses

last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in thename of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

The Gospel lesson today is puzzling at first glance.  Why does Jesus react so intensely to this warning from the Pharisees? The lesson as we read it starts, “Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Sounds like good advice, from caring neighbors: “Run away and hide, the powerful and cruel dictator that killed your cousin, John, is coming to get you.” It sounds like they want Jesus to be safe. Maybe they did. Jesus responds with a message to Herod: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…”

It is no more likely that any of these Pharisees knew Herod well enough to deliver Jesus’ message than it is that anyone who talks to me could take such a message to the mayor of New York City. It may well be that I have met someone who has had a conversation with Bill de Blasio, but none of them can just walk into his office. Neither could these Pharisees. Jesus was talking to them.

Just a note on Pharisees, who were they? In the Gospels, we run into one side of an argument without the background that the original hearers would have known. The Pharisees were a group within first century Judaism, probably not so much an organized group, but a category of people within the Jewish community.  They were devout and sincere religious people, they sought to fulfill their religious obligations, and encourage seriousness about religion. Move them to this century, they would be the people who are in church pretty much every Sunday, make their pledge and pay it, and attend the Annual Parish Meeting. In other words, they were like us. And they were very aware of how precarious existence—particularly the existence of their people and their religious observance—can be.

To the Pharisees, Jesus was not safe. They told him that HE was not safe, but really it was themselves and the things they cared about that were not safe.

This Gospel lesson picks up in the middle of a longer passage. In Chapter 13 of Luke, Jesus was traveling through Galilee, teaching and healing, and heading toward Jerusalem. People asked him about Galileans who the Roman governor had killed in Jerusalem—did they suffer because they were sinners? And Jesus said: No. Then he took that as an occasion to call all to repentance—sudden death reminds us that we can’t put off turning and dedicating our lives to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem, unafraid, and living the life of a prophet: healing, teaching, and telling the truth.  Jesus may have been unafraid, but these other folks were pretty apprehensive. Some people did not like the truth, particularly if it made them uncomfortable. Particularly if they were Roman governors, or client kings, like Herod, who had armies to express their dissatisfaction.

But for Jesus, healing, casting out demons, teaching the truth of the Love of God, and going to Jerusalem were all part of the same thing. “Jesus, listen to our fear, Herod’s going to kill you, run away… we don’t care about healing…let the demons stay… run away, we want to be safe.” It is our fear that gives the demons their power.  Powers emerge from human systems and take on a life of their own. And when people are afraid, demons, such as racism, appear and thrive. The demonic is not a few bad people thinking or saying bad things—it is everyone giving in to fear, and turning their back and refusing to face that evil or even admit to its reality.

So Jesus said to them, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…” Suffering and death are real, but in facing the demons and casting them out, it is Jesus holy act of life and love. He is on his way to the Holy City—Jerusalem—at the center, where both the love of God and the demonic embodiment of fear and hate are focused.  He says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” He walks forward in love, love for his people, love for the city of Jerusalem, yes, love for the Pharisees who want him to leave so they can pretend like the demons infecting their country and their life just aren’t there. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is Lent and in Lent, we focus on how our lives are filled with the love and blessing of God, and how we can live into God’s love. The psalm today is a psalm of hope: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” Our hope is with Jesus, who takes us with him, healing the sick, casting out demons and winding his way toward Jerusalem.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sums it up in this way in his sermon, “Antidotes for fear”:

Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.  Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it.  Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live.  We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.

 

 

The Spirit led him into the wilderness

A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him and the voice came from Heaven: You are my Son the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

That is who Jesus is. The rest of that chapter in the Gospel of Luke is never read in the lectionary—it continues to tell who Jesus was: He was thirty years old when he began his work, that is to say, a fully adult man, no longer a youth. It then gives his genealogy from the one who was called his father all the way back through the history of Israel to the first human being. Then we get our Gospel lesson for today, it defines further who Jesus is, what it means to be the Son of God, the Chosen One.

The spirit led him into the wilderness and he was tempted by the devil. There are three temptations here. In each, Satan wants Jesus to do something that would make him different from other human beings. “You’re hungry—wave your hand and make the rocks into bread; you want to fix things, I’ll give you power over all the whole world; you’re God’s chosen Son?—jump off the top of this building and God will save you…”  But Jesus doesn’t. Those things were not even close to his identity. For lots of people, the idea of the Son of God means just these things: being able to have whatever you want, whenever you want it; having the power to move people around and make them do things and to be perfectly protected by God all the time and even be able to flaunt it. And plenty of people will tell God to do it that way, and tell others that Jesus was that way.

But he wasn’t.

The beloved Son, was among God’s people as one of them. The lectionary does some odd things with the order of the Gospel text—the section of Luke’s Gospel that immediately follows this section was what I preached on three weeks ago, the day after the blizzard: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” THAT is the meaning of the Son of God, that is who Jesus is. Jesus lives a life that is what God wants in a human life, not the life that human beings think they would like if they were God.

“Turn this stone into bread!” Take the way out that only someone with the privilege of a godlike sorcerer could take. Be comfortable, when anyone else would be hungry. It is not that Jesus did not eat, or that he did not enjoy life… but out there in the desert, in that time alone and fasting, what would it mean for Jesus to just snap his fingers and have a six-course meal appear? Would that be good news to the poor? Would it accomplish any of the things which God chose to do by sending his son among us? “One does not live by bread alone”—Jesus is about life, and that life is for and with others.

“I will give you authority over all the kingdoms of this world.” How often do we think that we could solve all problems if we just had enough political power? Just put me in power—I wouldn’t do all these selfish things or make all those mistakes? How often have we been disappointed in our leaders? The levers of power manipulate and change those who look to wield them—it takes great realism and humility to accept positions of power and to do any good. Systems of power have a life of their own, and they quickly become idols.  Those that believe that “just a little more power and it will work” are addicted. The devil said to Jesus, “Just worship me and it will all be yours.” Jesus’ response is straight from the Ten Commandments: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Only him. That’s not so easy—others get ahead by taking shortcuts, grabbing power, they become the privileged, maybe it even becomes hereditary. But that. Is not Good News for the Poor.

Absalom JonesYesterday was the day on the church calendar when we remember Absalom Jones. Absalom Jones was an African-American who had been a slave in Philadelphia and had purchased the freedom of his wife and himself. He was a lay preacher at a Methodist Church along with Richard Allen, and when those who had power in the congregation decided that the African-American members had to be segregated up in the gallery during worship, Allen and Jones led them out of that church and formed a Free African Society. Absalom Jones founded a congregation within the Episcopal Church where black Christians could worship freely. Eventually, he was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, the first African-American to be ordained. He was an eloquent preacher and leader of the community, a conscience for the church against slavery, though that conscience was much resisted for many years. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas still worships and thrives in Philadelphia today. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” It takes courage to do that, and you can’t wait until you have control of the kingdoms of this world, or for the power over those kingdoms to make it easy. Christ turned from that approach and comes to us, preaching Good News to the Poor.

“So throw yourself down from the temple.” Impress everybody, it will all be easy. Jesus just looked at him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Easy was never part of the deal. Jesus is here among his people, in life with its real difficulties. It is life in its reality that he celebrates. Those angels praise God and minister to his Chosen one as he brings God’s mercy and healing to God’s people. He walked the way of the cross—he was walking that way all through this. The joy of his presence, his feasting with sinners, his comfort of those who grieve, his good news to the poor and all who suffer, and his being killed on a cross by the powers of this world; all of these things are connected, they are the same thing. God is present with us, living, being and bringing us the truth.

As St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans that we read this morning:

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sustain me with your bountiful spirit

A homily for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful spirit.

We gather today to begin Lent. Immediately after the imposition of ashes we will say Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm which has been repeated by Christians and Jews for millennia. I would like to reflect with you on this psalm.

Lent is a time for the renewal of life. It is a time to focus ourselves on the gift of life that God has given us. It is common to think that it is about sin and feeling bad about it. But you can do that any time: the Psalm says “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Our sin; our falling away from the goodness that God has for us, is real, but it is not for us to wallow in sinfulness, or to commit the further sin of despair.

This psalm is about God’s mercy… “according to your loving kindness in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”  God’s compassion propels us forward in our lives, even if we want to pack it in, and give up.  It says, “behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” We can be distracted by the things of this world. Have you turned off your cell phone? Is the anger and pre-occupation of this political season upsetting you? But when we listen to God in the secrecy of our heart, the truth is there. That truth is God’s love, deep within every person. The purpose of our penitence, and indeed of all our lives, is to discover that love of God, to step forward just a bit, and live a little more in that love.

Listen to how the Psalm progresses after that:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Lent is not a sad season, it is the season where that body that has been broken is purified and focused so that may rejoice. We live and we move toward Easter. We live in this real world, where death and sin, distraction from love and attention to hate are real things that surround us. Remember, Jesus was in the midst of just this reality, and in it and from it, he really died. At Easter, God raised him from the dead, and none of these things have power over life any more. Our journey to the cross is a journey to life.

I shall teach your ways to the wicked and sinners shall return to you.

Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.

Open my lips, O Lord, And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

 

The appearance of his face changed

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 7, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, in Moses, God set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being his people, living in his resurrection, is not cost free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence, not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets, Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one, the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s common to think of Lent as a time of sadness and self-denial. But it’s not a time to worry and think glum thoughts and miss some luxury you are “giving up for Lent”—Lent is a time to listen. It’s that quiet when we know the Glory of God in Jesus, God’s chosen one. That Glory manifests itself at Easter, but God’s Glory is here, at every moment. Listen to him. Leave off the noise that distracts us, the things that take our attention. See his face, the Love of God come for us. Live in God’s blessing, live your Lent in the presence of God’s Glory. He is right here.

Dr. King MountaintopThis month we are also celebrating Black History Month. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to listen to Jesus, and what it was like to see the prophets.  What it was like to live in God’s presence in incredibly difficult and dangerous times. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Let us pray:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain; Grant to us the we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen