Month: April 2016

God is glorified in wiping away every tear

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“See, the home of God is among mortals.”

That’s a radical statement. After 2000 years of Christian theology and preaching we sometimes miss how radical it really is.  In the Roman Empire there were two standard views, one of the official pagan religion with its many gods, and another of philosophers and sophisticates, who basically believed that there was some sort of ultimate God, either beyond the pagan gods, or instead of them. The pagan gods made their home somewhere else, not among mortals, though they might capriciously come and mess with people from time to time. The God of the philosophers was consistently distant, detached from the world, the unmoved mover—engagement with humanity was unthinkable.

“I heard a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;…” In the ancient world, that would be a shocking statement, it would go against all their values for a god to be that humble. The holy city arrives and God dwells with his people, and his people are not just the elite: God’s people are everyone. Not only will God himself dwell with them, but he will wipe every tear from their eyes. From the eyes of those who suffer—and there is no denial of the reality of suffering.

There is no doubt that Christianity was very diverse from the earliest times. There are references in the earliest documents to wealthy individuals and to slaves being members on an equal footing. Today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is about the incorporation of all the non-Jewish nations into the Body of Christ, even those who did not observe the practices that their Jewish sisters and brothers did.  Both of these things were frankly controversial, because of how uncomfortable they made many people, and the solutions that were worked out were not always as perfect as we might like to put forward in a story with a “happily ever after” ending. But the vision of the holy city with God tending to the tears and the healing of every person—humble or exalted—was something essential, something not to be sacrificed or compromised. It was a radical idea then. It is still a struggle.

It is in Jesus Christ that we know God who is now present with us. At the last supper, when our Eucharistic celebration was instituted, Jesus interpreted it by these words that are in today’s Gospel lesson: “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 infinite, the almighty, the all powerful ever-living God had just washed his disciples’ feet. As hard as it is, “you should love one another.” Just like he loved us. With complete humility and openness. The lesson from the Acts of the Apostles and much of the epistles of St. Paul record the conflict between Christians, from very early on, in accepting one another—in accepting people from all nations among themselves. Loving one another fully is not easy and it’s not just a one-off thing. We can’t say: “I love you, now don’t bother me.”

Eichenberg Lord's SupperThe shocking thing in Christianity is that it is God that is humble, it is God that lives among us. And in dwelling with God, we learn to be his disciples, in love and service to one another—and to all of God’s children.

Jesus said this, at his last meal with his disciples: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Unlike the world’s idea of exalted and distant God honored by wealth and power, the city of God is among the servants. God is present among us, and we know his power and glory in his being the servant of all.

Let’s read again what Peter said and the end of this lesson from the book of Acts: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced.”

It is God who wipes away every tear. It is God who welcomes and serves every stranger in our midst.

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A Great Multitude

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

MultitudeToday’s lesson from the book of Revelation presents a vision of the Kingdom of God, gathered in heavenly worship: a great multitude, more than anybody could possibly count—from every nation, all languages—every different kind of person you can imagine. All of them waving palm branches in victory and shouting out praises: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

The Lamb. That is, the one who was sacrificed for all, Jesus our Lord. The one who lived for us, the one who didn’t care whether he might suffer, or whether some might be angry that he paid more attention to those who were down or discouraged or needy…  Jesus lived—for us. Calmly, courageously, attentively, with affection. That is the Lamb that is described in the book of Revelation and throughout the Gospel of Christianity.

Amen! They all said. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. We praise God for his unending mercy and love. God is merciful to us—not because we deserve or have earned it, but because … God is all loving and all merciful beyond any expectation or reason. It is not who people consider the best, but whom God calls: “A great multitude that not one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”

This passage refers to a “multitude,” but what does that mean? Is it all of humanity? Well, no. This multitude, these people, all have something in common.  An elder describes this way: “These are they that have come out of the great ordeal.”

That’s interesting because we might have thought that those coming out of the great ordeal refers to the small group of Christians who might have been hurt by the Romans in first century Christianity. But this is a great multitude, and they have all, all been through the great ordeal.  Without exception, those who come to know the joy of God have suffered…suffered the pain of loss, or of failure, or tragic things happening to loved ones. Or maybe the ordeal of being lost, not knowing whether you are loved by anyone, or of being cast out, disrespected and even despised.

The multitude around the heavenly throne, don’t wallow in the ordeal or in self-pity: “These are they who have come OUT of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Purified, washed and bleached and ironed because of the one who lived for us, full of selfless courage and compassion. We participate in the Lamb, living the life of selflessness and compassion, worshiping him night and day.

I once had the privilege of singing in a choir that performed Benjamin Britten’s cantata, “Rejoice in the Lamb.” The texts

were written by Christopher Smart, an English poet from the 1700s, who wrote them while he was locked in an insane asylum.  The music and the poetry are filled and overflowing with the joy of the goodness of God. It catches the spirit of those multitudes praising God night and day, particularly it’s last movement: “Hallelujah, Hallelu… Hallelujah from the heart of God … from the hand of the artist inimitable and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty. Hallelujah.” In singing it together with others, weaving many parts together, I felt lifted out of my own self-concern, for a moment, or a time of pure thankfulness.

They will hunger no more, and and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

God will wipe away every tear. The Lamb is our Shepherd. The Good Shepherd Jesus who we know—he will guide us out of every uncertainty and anxiety—indeed he will guide us out of any arrogance or hatred; wiping away the tears of sorrow and of suffering and leading us into the presence of God to join in the heavenly music of that multitude.

 

Let’s join and say together once again our psalm for today:

 

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul; and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

You have anointed by head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

You restored my life

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

St. Luke’s Church, Haworth, New Jersey

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Today we have the stories of two resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. He also appears to Peter and six others on the beach of the lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. One thing these stories share in common is that, at first, no one recognized Jesus.

The story that was read first is usually called the Conversion of St. Paul. Which is interesting because it’s not actually a conversion story. Paul was a devout Jew before this event and he remained a devout Jew for the rest of his life. Paul himself describes what happened, not as a conversion, but as an appearance of the resurrected Lord. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he says this:

[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

In our lesson from Acts this morning, the form of the story is not so much that of a conversion. It’s more akin to the way prophets are called. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Or Isaiah in the Temple when the prophet responded: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

So here are we are, on the road to Damascus. There’s a flash, overwhelming light, Saul falls from his donkey. And a voice says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul’s response? “Who ARE you Lord?” Now, commentators have singled this passage out as a very strange thing. Saul knows he is being called—but he doesn’t know that Jesus is doing the calling. Put another way: he knows he is being called, but he does not see.

Why doesn’t he see Jesus? Well, there is that blinding flash from heaven, but I think the key is the very beginning of the lesson: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Saul’s anger, his hatred, so overcame him—he was already not seeing—he was not seeing at whom he was angry, just the self-righteousness of his anger. And Jesus says to him, “Why do you persecute ME.” The ones that Saul persecuted were members of the church. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ persecution before his death, but what Jesus said to him was it didn’t matter. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus. Saul was blinded, and helpless and he was guided into the community that he had been persecuting for support and healing. And he was healed, and when he was able to see, he could see that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, he was called to proclaim him, even beyond his own Jewish nation and to bring the news of what God has done in Jesus to all the nations.

The other resurrection appearance is the last chapter of the Gospel of John.  Some time after the first resurrection appearances of Jesus, seven of Jesus’ long time disciples are back in Galilee, at that lake where Jesus had first called them away from their jobs as fishermen. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” We don’t know why they were there or what they were doing, but I think they were discouraged and lost. They didn’t know what to do—so they just defaulted back to their old ways. What happened next was that these professional fishermen were out in the dark and couldn’t find any fish, despite their skill and years of experience.

Jesus appears on the beach, but in their discouragement and confusion they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks them about their catch, and gives them a little advice. All of a sudden, their net is filled and Peter recognizes Jesus—and then Peter puts on his clothes and goes in for a swim—go figure. On the beach, there’s a charcoal fire, not unlike the charcoal fire that was in the High Priest’s courtyard, where the slaves and soldiers were warming themselves when Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus is barbecuing fish.

fishFor me, this scene always brings back a wonderful memory from my childhood. I was fishing with my family off the Oregon coast early one summer morning. As dawn broke, we all caught our limit and we drove back to my uncle’s house in Portland, where we barbecued our catch. There is nothing quite like Pacific salmon caught just a few hours ago cooked over coals. That’s how I imagine the disciples responded to this wonderful breakfast after their long night at sea. But as to Jesus? They sort of recognized him and they sort of didn’t. The Gospel says: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

Why aren’t the disciples seeing Jesus? Because they had yet to give up their despair and confusion, just like Saul needed to surrender his anger and hate. They needed to change.

After they have eaten, Jesus talks to Peter. Three times, Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me? Each time, when Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus replies: Take care of my sheep. Let’s not forget, it was only a few days ago that Peter had denied Jesus three times. Interesting—in the Greek, three different words are used for sheep and for tend. It’s not exactly a rhetorical repetition, rather it’s a variation. Maybe there are different kinds of sheep, that need different kinds of tending. Perhaps that’s true of people, too.

When Peter and Paul finally see the risen Lord, they are changed. But they aren’t changed in who they are in their essential beings. The change is that they are called to serve; to reach out; to proclaim the life of the risen Christ in a world where there is too much death, hate, anger and fear. Christ comes to us as we are, however that may be. He calls Christians out of their fear, or anger, or confusion, or complacency. Jesus gives his life, so that we may give. He appears to us to call us forward to be transformed to tend and to heal one another.

From our psalm today:
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

 

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

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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

Easter continues. The disciples were gathered in a locked room for fear… And the risen Jesus just appeared in the midst of them. Christ is not just risen because the occasion is cheery and the flowers are blooming.

Christ appears and the wounds of his crucifixion are real.  In the real world, the powers of death are very real indeed. The powers of hate and intimidation have their effects. But God has raised Christ from the dead and that changes the meaning of all of these things.

“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; even those who pierced him…” We have life, not because we have made an agreement with earthly powers, so that they don’t take it away from us… we have life because God, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has given us the gift of life.  It is easy to fall into believing that the real world gives life by getting status or wealth, or working for somebody who has those things. I used to think, “Oh, I’ll be able to fix things, if I can just get to being an important enough leader…” Others think that large amounts of money will help them to fix things for themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong with having money and there is nothing wrong with serving in an important position; but when we fall into focusing on those things; believing that achieving those things will give life, it is at that point that we start to compromise with the powers of death. Do you think that it’s rare for people to think, quietly, to themselves, “If I can just get a bit more advantage and others suffer just a little more, then I can achieve a lot of good for everybody?” Just a little manipulation of the truth, or a financial push or planting a bit of dishonest philosophy in public opinion to give an advantage to my organization, or my political party, or my company.

The Way of Death is seductive, it masquerades as the way of the Real World. But it is not. The real world is the Way of Life. The Resurrection of Jesus binds us together, we have the life of generosity extended and received, of community where where we are bound together in good times and in difficult times, with people that we like, and especially, with people that we don’t get along with, yet they are part of us. The Resurrection shows that life is not dependent on compromise with death—God gives us life in love, not in outwitting others and maneuvering to the top.

The crucifixion and the resurrection confirm that what Jesus’ opponents said and did was real. They could kill him and defeat any worldly plans that he or his friends might have had. The way of death is powerful, but it does not give life.

Jesus’ friends had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. They did not know what to do. Despite the lock and the barred door, he came into them. “Peace be with you. I send you into the world just as I myself has been sent.” He sends us forth in life, to bring life and to give life. The forces of death are there, but God will defeat them. In Christ, God has defeated them. Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven—sinners though they have been, imperfect and fearful as they might be.  And whoever you hold fast, they are held fast—it does not matter if they aren’t with the program, or if they are fearful or angry or compromising with the world. You hold them fast and they are part of you. (Last year I explained why I translate this sentence this way. It’s a mistranslation and a misunderstanding to think that they Jesus’ disciples are retaining the sins of others—it’s their brothers and sisters themselves that they are holding fast).

thomasThis Gospel includes the story of Faithful Thomas. Not Doubting Thomas. While his friends were locked up and afraid, Thomas was out. Somewhere, away, doing we know not what. And he came back and he had not been there when Jesus brought peace and his spirit to his fearful friends. They could not make him understand, and they disagreed. But they held him fast with them. He was their brother and they remained with him and he with them. They shared in receiving the power of life, though they did not understand. And, a week later Jesus appeared. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus brings life to Thomas, and as the Gospel lesson ends, it says, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We rejoice in life, in the freedom that God gives us and the opportunity to be bound together in his love. As our lesson from Revelation says:

“Jesus Christ [is] the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”