Month: March 2016

I have seen the Lord

A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Mary Magdalen went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”

Today is the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus. On this day, God has raised from the dead, the one that the powers of this world had killed, and he brings us life and freedom from death and oppression. Today he brings us into eternal life.

ResurrectionIf we are doubtful, confused, and muddled in this life and don’t know what to think, then we are in exactly the position of those first disciples, like Mary Magdalen, to whom Jesus first appeared. She saw Jesus, and she thought he was the groundskeeper. She was so pre-occupied with her own grief, that at first she couldn’t recognize that she was talking to her teacher, the Lord of Life.

When you read your Bible closely, and read the accounts of the resurrection, there is always confusion and doubt at first. It’s not because Jesus wasn’t actually there. The confusion, the doubt, the grief, the despair – those were all what the people to whom Jesus appeared were feeling. The Resurrection of Christ is here today but it takes conversion to see him. And when I say conversion, what I mean is giving up those things inside all of us—doubt, grief, despair, hatred—those powers of this world that grab hold of our spirit, and keep us from seeing the truth.

This morning we are baptizing Savannah. And I’m going to break off from my sermon for a minute to say this: This is my second Easter I have had the pleasure of worshipping with you as your priest. And the number of beautiful children I have been asked to baptize—and even more important, the way this congregation upholds their children and their young people—has been a true joy to witness.

Which is going to be the main point of the rest of my sermon. It’s no accident that we are baptizing Savannah on Easter. Her parents asked me when their daughter could be baptized, and I said, “On Easter.” I’m usually not that definite or directive, I can let a lot of rules slide when it seems helpful. But the church baptizes on Easter, because we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It’s not just a vending machine where you get the right credential. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and her parents so that she can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for this child and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair, we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

In conclusion, I will share the end of a sermon that is over 1500 years old. It is attributed to John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople. His last name is a nickname that was given to him after he had been preaching for a while. It means, “Golden Mouth.”

Enter all of you therefore into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken  by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah proclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and Life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

Annunciation on Good Friday

A homily on Good Friday, March 25, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus where he came from.

Today is March 25th. That is the day that the church normally celebrates the feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she was going to have a baby, and that baby was to be called the Son of the Most High. All the people who manage liturgical celebrations nowadays sternly inform us that Good Friday takes precedence so we have to put off the Annunciation until another free day when we can have a happy feast. However, there are some scholars that believe that the Annunciation was put on March 25th because there existed traditions in the ancient world that sages and prophets died on the date of their conception, and that some ancient scholars calculated that Jesus was crucified on March 25th.  Rather than go into the complexities and probabilities of that, let’s reflect for a moment on the Annunciation.  I said most of what follows when the text came up in Advent of 2014.

“Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” That’s a bold thing to say to a very young woman in this situation. That term “Angel”: the Greek word basically means Messenger. That message that Gabriel brought her, the message of God’s favor, God’s love—it takes some seeing. It did not relieve her from poverty, it did not make people think or say nice things about her. It certainly didn’t get her out of changing diapers and putting up with all the difficulties of child rearing. And if she could see forward, thirty years or so, and see what would happen to her Son…Pietahow much pain and grief does the favor of God cost?

But in that child was life. In him was hope. In him is the resurrection from the dead right in the middle of this too real life. How much did Mary know? She was young, no evidence of great education, but she knew quite clearly the situation she was in. So she listened to the angel. She heard him out. She even heard him speak about her older cousin Elizabeth: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” She knew, she heard, and she decided. And then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

When Mary went up into the hills and met Elizabeth she sang a song, which explains why she did that and what it means:

 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;

the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.

God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel,

for he has remembered his promise of mercy.

The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

 

This young woman was standing at the foot of the cross, with the disciple that Jesus loved—perhaps that means all of us, we are all beloved of Jesus. From the cross, he said to us: “Here is your mother.”

The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas to betray him

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Judas in stained glassThe devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.

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The literal translation of the word “the devil” in that sentence is “the slanderer.” That is, one who distorts the truth to hurt someone else. It is understood as the power of evil, a demon—maybe the king of all demons. But we should remember that evil is not something that existed before the world. It is not an equal power competing with God. Evil is not something that was created by God. Evil is something that people do.

So what is this “devil,” this demon, this—perhaps­—prince of demons? The best way that I can understand the demonic is that it is human evil that no human being is taking responsibility for. I have talked about racism in this context.  But it happens a lot and in many human ways—it goes back to the Garden of Eden when the first people hid from God because they knew that they had disobeyed…when he was caught, the man immediately started blaming the woman. Human beings ever since have been like that—trying to make themselves more comfortable, or safe—often at the expense of others.

When people do that in a direct way—like the way Judas planned to betray Jesus—they are seen as bad people. Some even revel in that role! But most don’t want to be the bad person. So they find ways to rationalize when they are trying to take advantage of others. They tell themselves: This is OK. I am not hurting him or her directly—I am just taking care of myself. I have to protect my job from those immigrants. I need to protect my neighborhood from people whose looks or culture make me suspicious or uncomfortable. Over time, this kind of evil becomes disassociated from specific acts and develops a volition of its own. It becomes powerful enough that it’s demonic and we are witnessing its presence among us even in modern times.

Jesus entered Jerusalem and he preached the truth. It was that simple—the truth. But that aroused fear among the people, particularly their leaders, and particularly the religious leaders were fearful because they had much to lose. Shortly after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphus the high priest said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” That fear, itself, was the power of death, it was the power of the Slanderer, the Devil.  And that Devil had entered Judas, and Jesus knew it. But Jesus was not afraid, rather it was the time to teach his disciples about the resurrection from death.

He wrapped a towel around himself and he took on the role of the least respected servant, the one who washed the guests’ feet.  No Peter, it’s not about a new baptism, a liturgical thing, or giving of honors­—it’s about being the humblest of servants. Servants are among those who typically catch the brunt of the actions of the Slanderer—if those who have the power to push away discomfort, anger, nastiness, fear and guilt manage to avoid it, where does it end up? With people who don’t have any real-world power.

So Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. He took on himself all the disrespect that servants get.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

The work of the Devil, the work of the Slanderer, breaks down the respect between people. And it leads to death. The resurrection from the dead is the breaking of this power of death, and it builds respect among those who have been alienated by this death. Yet the manipulations of the Slanderer can only be undone by giving up fear, ceasing to cling to comfort and privilege, and becoming a servant.    The Lord’s Supper, our great feast of Thanksgiving (to translate that word, Eucharist) is living in this resurrection, in the servanthood of Christ. Our Gospel today says this: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” And then: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The suffering of Christ during Holy Week is very real; suffering in this world is very real, today at least as much as at any time. The devil that entered the heart of Judas is abroad in this world. The love that we are commanded to is not the power of nice people being nice and everything being OK. The resurrection is only by the power of God, the love of God, in the servanthood of Jesus Christ. The powers of the world do have power. But in Him, God is glorified.

The Stones would Shout out

A sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

This Lent, we have been moving with Jesus along his path toward Jerusalem, the path to his resurrection. Today he has reached Jerusalem, and this week is about what happened in Jerusalem—that is to say, what it takes to understand and live in Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus has come to Jerusalem, to Bethany, to the home of his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And he gets a colt and has it draped in garments and starts a procession into the city. There was nothing ambiguous about this in the ancient world: a solemn procession with the leader on horseback, greeted by crowds was how conquering kings entered a city. Now, Jesus was on a little donkey—that turned the values of the Roman Empire upside down, but the meaning was clear: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people said that, and it disturbed the religious leaders. “Shut them up, Jesus!”

And Jesus replied that the stones…
Remember at Jesus’ baptism—right before—John the Baptist said that God could raise up the Children of Abraham from the stones? Jesus replied that those stones would cry out if the people were silent. The Kingdom of God was entering Jerusalem—Jesus was bringing the resurrection from the dead into the city. The time had come to acclaim God’s presence with joy.

But the leaders were scared. They had made deals with the ruling powers, and those didn’t take into account the Kingdom of God. It was safe, it kept the forms of religion, and it kept the living God out of it.

Thus commences Holy Week and the final teaching of Jesus. Almost a quarter of the Gospel follows the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus teaches in and near the temple. He has a quiet meal with his disciples, and they learn about his gift of himself, his body and blood. The power of the resurrection in the life of being servants to one another.

And then…

We have just gone through it…

What happened? Rodger assigned to me the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. What happened with him? He had all the power. Legions of Roman soldiers to enforce any order. Pilate talks to Jesus and what does he perceive? Truth, gentleness, courage, hope. Not a violent revolutionary or a robber. Pilate was a politician and a bureaucrat—he did not want to get involvedCrite stations of the cross with the squabbles of these local people—he had no respect for any of them. He tried to pass the buck—the local politician in charge of Jesus’ home region happened to be in town, maybe he would take responsibility? Well…no… Pilate thinks that maybe he can have Jesus whipped, like you do with slaves and others that don’t matter, and just let him go—let the matter drop. But somehow it doesn’t work, the pressure keeps up, there isn’t any way that Pilate can get out of this without consequences. And above all, Pilate did not want to have consequences—he would rather let truth and hope die. He would judge that there had been a crime and pass out the death penalty for it just to avoid the pressure. Just to serve his time and get back to Rome with honor and reward.

Everyone wants to get by without consequences. So the consequences came to rest on Jesus. He was executed on a cross. The people were silent, those that did not taunt him, or call for his death.

And the stone—which the builders rejected—has become the chief cornerstone. The path for the resurrection of Jesus went directly through this rejection—through the rejection of responsibility by every one of us. It is only by the gift of God, the mercy of God that our hearts can be full enough to walk with him in his path of service, and responsibility, and respect. Because there are consequences of living in the truth, consequences for all of us. The freedom of the resurrection is dear, its price is high—and not just for Jesus.

God’s love for us calls us forward, toward the resurrection life: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This week, we walk together with Jesus on his way.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

The power of his Resurrection and the sharing of his Sufferings

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

When we read the letters of St. Paul, he is usually in an argument with someone.  I actually think that it is because lots of people like to steer the church in directions that give them an advantage over others and Paul had his hands full dealing with them. But whatever the case, it’s clear that here Paul was making his case against a group of people who insisted that every Christian had to be circumcised according to Jewish law. The church in Philippi was mostly gentile, not Jewish, and it is not really clear whether the Christians who were advocating this were Christians who were also practicing Jews, or whether they were Christian converts who just saw that circumcision was an important rule in scripture and were therefore teaching that everyone had to follow that rule.

This is why Paul trots out his pedigree as a lifelong observant Jew at the beginning of the lesson. Paul’s argument is not that he hasn’t followed the rules, or even that he doesn’t like them—he is saying that one doesn’t get to the resurrection by following these rules. He’s also saying that imposing them on others distracts from the true path.

We are here in Lent, following the way of Christ, preparing for Easter. The path that Jesus walks winds toward Jerusalem, and his confident life of loving and healing disturbed the powers of this world. He was outside of their control and the powers of this world crucified Jesus. Freedom in Christ, and healing in Christ is not without cost. He paid with his life.

Paul recognized the priceless value of Christ’s healing and Paul gave up all the privileges and all the things that he had valued before. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…” In his resurrection, Christ was free from all the power, not just of death, but of those forces that gain power by allying themselves with death. For Paul, the path to life is the righteousness from God that is based on faith. He was glad to to pay the price for that, which is following Jesus, even to the cross.

Now, we can get too melodramatic about that—it’s not about finding dramatic ways to die or high-profile ways to suffer. Honestly and courageously following Jesus is costly because it means giving up the defenses we use to trick others, or exploit others, to keep ourselves safe. It means that we won’t be saved by finding some big rules to follow, that will define us as better than others. There is no reason to expect that following Christ will suddenly make everyone else honest or kind.

We share in his sufferings by becoming like him. And in sharing with him is abundant life, the real life of the resurrection.

Mary of BethanyIn the Gospel lesson today, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem. Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived, is basically a suburb of Jerusalem. And there is a dinner, just before the time that we commemorate as Holy Week is about to start. And Mary does something very unusual. She anoints Jesus’ feet. While anointing of the head, to perfume and moisten the face, was quite common, hardly anyone ever had their feet anointed. Except for a corpse at the time of burial. This is a particular expression of Mary’s relationship with Jesus and her recognition of what he was doing, what was about to happen. Judas focuses on the perfume that she used to anoint Jesus—it was costly—more than a person could really afford. So aren’t we supposed to all be about serving the poor? Shouldn’t the rule be that we turn everything into cash and use it to take care of the poor? Whether Judas wanted to steal the money or not, he misses the point. The generosity of Christ is in the giving of himself, binding us together in relationship to him and one another. Mary knew that Jesus was about to die, and in the act of anointing she was binding herself to him in her grief.

This relationship between Mary and Jesus means much more than the abstract idea of getting cash together to give to the poor, however good following that rule might be.  Indeed, people of all sorts are lifted up by a generosity that includes connecting them together by real expression of respect.  Mary understood Jesus, she knew that he had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, that he brought life, but she also knew that he was about to die. The sentence in the Gospel of John that immediately precedes the beginning of today’s Gospel is: “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”  She anointed his feet, she was grieving and praying for life.

St. Paul said: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” In Christ we have the resurrection from the dead, but in living toward that resurrection we love, and lose, and grieve. Abundant life is not gained by wrapping ourselves up into a package of rules and putting ourselves on a storage shelf. That is more like abundant death. Mary anointed the feet of the living Jesus for burial. In this world of death we continue to live. In our grief we receive life.

The righteousness of God is his love for every one of his children. We are blessed in that love, and our life is an opportunity to be a blessing for others.

As our psalm for today ends:

Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

 

He came to himself

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

He came to himself and he said, “How many of my father’s hired workers have bread enough and to spare…?

Today the Gospel is one of Jesus’ best know parables. Traditionally it is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it actually features two sons and a father. The first of these sons, the prodigal of the traditional title, behaves in a way that we see, to one degree or another, in many people of all generations.  He seeks for himself, he grabs what he can get. In his case he wheedles out his share of his inheritance and takes off. A big guy living the high life, thinking that just being prosperous would sustain itself. I know people like that. It seems like our society, in recent years has moved in the direction of even admiring people like that. Being admired for appearing to be wealthy sometimes works, at least for a while. Some even make money at it. But the bubble bursts, the market crashes, famine hits. And, at least for this young man it meant that he had descended to the most humiliating place possible: a Jew, feeding someone else’s pigs.pigs And not even making a living at it.

But he came to himself.  That’s literally what the text says in the Greek. “He came to himself.” You might say, “but of course he would.” The young man had hit bottom, but it is not the case that everyone who has descended that low will ever come to themselves.  Many continue to blame everyone else, and continue to spiral downward, with no bottom in sight. I have watched that happen.  This young man came to himself—that is the first part of repentance.  It takes courage to come back and look at yourself, to see yourself as you really are, and to admit it. It takes a lot of courage, and it is always tempting to try to deflect, and pretend, and not always to be who you are with your whole heart.

This young man came to himself and he returned to his father. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you: I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me as one of your hired hands.” He confessed how his actions had alienated him from his family, and his responsibilities, and, indeed, from the justice of God.  I think we miss the point if we focus on the emotion with which he says this, or think that we have to imitate his expressions of humiliation. It is his own construction that he is irredeemable. His father was waiting for him—he saw his son from a distance and went out to greet him. The father’s love had never stopped, despite the hurt. God’s love never stops either. No one is irredeemable, God’s love is there when ours gives out. God’s love is there before the person comes to himself.

But even when we live in the blessings of God’s love and forgiveness, our actions, both past and present, continue to have consequences. The younger brother had taken his inheritance and left the family farm with his father and brother to shoulder the responsibilities. That disrespect resulted in hurts. Hurts that did not magically disappear. The perspectives of the older brother and the father were different. For the father, the life of his son, his return, and in effect, his return to life, were paramount. For the brother, the rupture of trust within the family, and the younger brother’s exploitation of his privilege were still problematic.  Being reconciled to his father did not mend the problems with his older brother. To the extent that the younger brother had really “come to himself” he could not glibly just come back and return to some version of the way things were before—there is real work to do. Reconciliation is hard work.

The older brother in this parable is a bit of a pill about it. Truth be told, most of us can be from time to time, focusing on our own hurts and our own pride, rather than on reconciliation. Historic hurts have a life of their own, and they can magnify. That is why we must all come to ourselves—realize our own role in hurt and in healing. In Lent, we pay particular attention to being reconciled to God in Christ.

This reconciliation does not take us out of the responsibilities and problems in our world, in fact it makes us more a part of it. As we come to ourselves, and repent of those things we have done that have hurt others, we are more willing to accept our own responsibility and talk about these things. Amends and healing are not automatic, reconciliation is costly and takes time.

As we heard this morning, Saint Paul said this to the church of Corinth:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.