Month: May 2016

They found the slave in good health

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, May 29, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Gospel lesson today is about the healing of the slave of a Centurion in Capernaum. It shows the power of Jesus—he performs a healing from a distance. But that, for me, isn’t the most interesting part of this story. The most interesting part is the story of Jesus reaching beyond his native community—the Jews—and what that meant for him, the gentiles and the Jews.

There is something we should think about as a prelude to this lesson. This is Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter 6, Jesus has just preached what we generally think of as the Sermon on the Mount. He has told his listeners things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God;” Or, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you;” or “Do not, judge, and you will not be judged.” The kind of thing that we all nod our head and say, yes, yes, of course!—and then avoid doing in our daily lives. And don’t think that the Jews in Jesus’ day were any different in that regard! Jesus has told them that people who don’t act on his words are like a man who builds his lakeside house on a foundation of sand. Can you imagine how that went over with the wealthy and powerful?

Also in Luke, Chapter 6, Jesus has been criticized by Jewish leaders for allowing his followers to heal on Capernaumthe Sabbath. So when he enters Capernaum, a Jewish town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, there’s already a tension between him and his own community. Capernaum was the town where Peter lived, and maybe Jesus and some of the other Apostles as well. And probably some of those powerful people Jesus was talking about with the lake-side houses.

That’s the backdrop for our lesson today. The reason I’m reviewing this is because I want to highlight the tensions that are likely to have been in place—both in the Jewish community between the leaders and Jesus—and between the Jews and their Roman overseers.

Which brings us to the centurion who is the focus of our lesson.

A centurion was a professional soldier in the Roman army. The title literally means a commander of one hundred—though it refers to the type of command he had, not the exact number of soldiers. This was the equivalent of a company commander in our modern military—in those days of the Roman occupation of Palestine he would have been in charge of the local military garrison. He would have been very important in that town, no matter who he was.

The centurion had a slave whom he valued highly who was very ill. It’s likely that this was a slave with particular skills, like writing down the centurion’s speeches and orders, or accounting, or supervising the household staff. Frequently the children of a household were educated by a slave, this could have been the tutor and supervisor of the centurion’s children. It’s possible, that in a long relationship, the centurion had come to value the slave as a person of worth—perhaps, even, as a trusted friend.

The passage says that the centurion sent Jewish elders to Jesus with a message, asking him to come and heal his slave. That would be the way the Roman commander of an occupied territory would act: he would work through the local leaders. And maybe the local leaders also had an agenda. Maybe they were still trying to catch Jesus out in violating laws and standards. Perhaps they were trying to set him up. Or they may have been fearful, afraid that an otherwise fairly friendly benefactor might turn on them. Or maybe they truly liked and had a bond of affection with the centurion who took an interest in their community and wanted to help him in his hour of need.

Then there comes the key part of the story: The centurion sends some friends with a message for Jesus.  This is because Jesus didn’t have email. When it says friends, it really is referring to associates who would be in the household of an influential man—if a message was to be carried, they would be the ones to do it. But this email to Jesus is extremely humble and respectful for someone who is the representative of the military might of the Roman Empire: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, because I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” But what does this mean? Didn’t he want to see Jesus? Was this some kind of polite blow-off? Was the centurion testing Jesus, to see if he could do something more impressive than just heal someone by being with them and laying his hands upon them?  Or maybe, it just struck the centurion as unseemly to have so much attention paid to a slave?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they come up for me whenever I look at this story. There’s another possibility, which I have not seen discussed. This centurion was not Jewish, he was definitely a gentile, even if he was impressed by the life of the Jewish community and believed in their God. Was he aware of the conflicts between this healer and some of the devout religious leaders? He was probably aware that Jews were prohibited from accepting hospitality from gentiles in many cases. Would having Jesus enter his house expose Jesus to further criticism? “Lord…I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…” We don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but the centurion’s message said, “…speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Jesus had spoken the words in public, the healing words of his sermon: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven, give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God and healing among the children of Israel, and now he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when the messengers got back to the centurion’s house they found the slave in good health.

The tensions that occur when we try not just to listen, but to act on Jesus’ words—in our own communities, and in reaching out to others—is what living the Christian life is about. The centurion knew that—though he was a man of action, commanding many troops—this was a new way to act that leads to eternal life.
Now, let us act upon Jesus’ commands and go forth and serve the Lord.

Trinity Sunday

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

Today is Trinity Sunday. The feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the name day of this church and congregation. Fundamentally it is about our worship and adoration of God, who gives us life. And mercy. And hope.

We celebrate God, but we also celebrate this Trinity Church. I have been with you a little over a year and a half, pretty much every Sunday. Here’s what I have seen: a congregation with life and courage. From the outset, I noticed how important respect for one another is here.  There is a joy in being together, worshiping God and sharing in meals and our times together. There is particular joy in the nurture of children in this church. Easter 3Young people are taught the faith and they take leadership roles in the services. And everyone enjoys hearing our youth choir sing.

I arrived here the day after Fr. Allen Newman died and shortly before the death of Keith Warren. Besides grief over losing two beloved brothers in Christ, Trinity lost two major leaders. Which meant there was understandable anxiety: How would things get done? How could the church move forward?

On this Trinity Sunday, a year-and-a-half into my ministry, I am here to report that Trinity Church got the important things done and it is moving forward. I will tell you what I have seen, but first I want to say something about my role as priest here.

There’s a part of my ministry that everyone sees here: On Sunday, I preach the Gospel and celebrate the Eucharist with you. Those are very important things, and there are things I do here that not everybody sees. But there are also important things I don’t do that are often done by clergy when a parish has a full-time priest. I don’t manage the budget or supervise employees. I don’t choose the music or put together the liturgy or service bulletin. I don’t manage the Sunday School and I don’t round up the stewardship and fundraising programs. In the beginning, I didn’t even attend vestry meetings, though that has changed recently. Yet that has all been done. How? You have done it. You, the members of this body, took responsibility for being the church and making it run. And this isn’t just a question of the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to make an organization run. Each of the groups and families in this congregation works hard, with generosity of spirit, to make this a place of spiritual awakening, respect and hope.

What have I seen in my time with you? I see outreach to this neighborhood, through an after-school ceramics program, which gives possibilities in artistic expression and positive attention for kids who really need this enrichment. I see women from a local homeless shelter welcomed at Christmas time as our guests—receiving dignified respect as well as a festive meal.

And our sick and homebound are not forgotten. Our pastoral care committee and others visit the sick, and Jeannie Seaman is a lay Eucharistic visitor who brings communion to the shut-ins. And when Jeannie was in the hospital, she herself received visits, organized by parishioners. When I have gone to visit those who are sick or in hospital, I have never gone alone—Trinity members have always gone with me because it is in their DNA to be community together.
Then, we have an acolyte core that includes young and old—we have our altar guild—we have our choir. It’s not only their serious dedication to the tasks of preparing our Sundays for worship, it’s also the reverence displayed toward God that makes it possible for us all to enter into the mysteries of faith—together.

This is a family that loves being together. I once described it as a group that would have a feast at the slightest provocation. We rejoice in God’s love, and in this short time we have baptized Logan, Ethan, Aiden, Jael, Demetrius, Amiyah, Savannah, and Zyhir into the body of Christ in our midst. The Body of Christ is alive and continues forward into the future.

These things that I have seen are the manifestations of the spirit of this Trinity Church of Morrisania which is enlivened by the Holy Spirit to bring forth Christ’s love into the world. It is not a fearful spirit or one that is only worried about its self-preservation. We have received God’s generosity in Jesus Christ and we look to share his hospitality with all his children.

At the parish meeting a couple of months ago we discussed together a new project that grows out of this spirit. The New York Internship Program of the Episcopal Service Corps will be working with Trinity to bring interns in residence here, beginning in 2017. This is a big project, and it takes a lot of preparation. Paula Roberts and Eleanor Chesterfield are leading the way on this and participating in the steering committee of the project.  One of the things that the project will do is provide a certain amount of revenue to offset the costs that the parish has been incurring to maintain the rectory where the interns will be living. In itself, that is important, because it helps to stabilize the finances of the parish.  But as a priest and a theologian, what is more important to me is that half-a-dozen young adults will be here and learn from the spirit of this parish, to learn how you live out respect, love and joy here in the south Bronx. And they will share that forward, in this part of the city that so much needs to receive respect and hope, they will share this spirit—in their work assignments, and in being resident seven days a week here on this block, and in their participation in the congregation. The interns will be enlivened by their contacts here in this church and in turn they will contribute to the life and ministry and hope of the congregation that is already here.

This is what YOU do, and who YOU are: God’s people, living in the joy of God’s presence. It may feel at times like we are small, or have few resources. But God is not small, and the abundance and riches of God outstrip all the opulence of the most wealthy places in the city.

The Trinity is how we know God: the Father and creator of all things in the whole of the universe, in Jesus manifesting God in demonstrating how to be human, and the Holy Spirit transforming us and incorporating us into the life of God. It is here at this Trinity Church that I have seen the Holy Spirit doing this.

As our psalm says:

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him?

The son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels;

you adorn him with glory and honor;

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world.

Heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ

A sermon for Pentecost, May 15, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and they are understood by everyone in their own languages, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it. But we are like Philip—we can’t see it, even when it is standing there staring us in the face: “Lord, show us the Father.” “How long have you been with me Philip, and you still cannot see me?” Jesus answered him. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

This is the promise and the reality of Jesus to us, to all of us. But there is no cause to be complacent about that, or to pat ourselves on the back, or to think that God abiding in us makes us or our decisions better than anyone else’s. The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this, just a few verses later in his letter to the Romans following our epistle lesson for today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sights to deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

The passage appointed from this same chapter today starts: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” I’ve been recently reading a couple of very good books about the Roman Empire. In one by Mary Beard [called SPQR] which has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Three slaves tend their Roman mistress

Three slaves tend their Roman mistress

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing, they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not nearly as many people were adopted as were slaves. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  Today, wealth is more often handled through corporations that have complicated succession plans. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously sing, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely–without fear.

We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.

As it says in today’s psalm:

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them

all’ the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.

He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him;

I will rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Hallelujah!

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

A sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Our lesson today comes at the very end of the Book of Revelation; the very end of the Bible. It is an invitation and a promise. The images of the Spirit and the Bride refer to the Holy Spirit—the life of God which enlivens the church, and the Bride of Christ, which in the Book of Revelation, is portrayed both as the church and as the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is an image of the Kingdom of God. Both the Spirit and the Bride say “Come”—inviting all to enter in.

At the same time, “Come” is also prayer for the return of Jesus. “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus” was a common prayer for Christians in the first hundred years or so of the church.  It continues, “Let everyone who hears say, `Come.’” The whole assembly, including us, at this time, is about welcome and inviting. The good news of God’s overwhelming love is for sharing, and healing, and giving life.

The next sentence is: “Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” The living water that enlivens our spirit, and gives us hope is the possession and property of no human being. It is the gift of God—take it as a gift. Today there are many who are thirsty, many whose spirits are hurt, lost, angry, discouraged and dying in their spirit. They are thirsty, and yet when they look toward the living water, they see it surrounded with barriers; toll collectors; people who think they own the well. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” “Let everyone who is thirsty Come! Take the water of life as a gift.” It is yours, it is ours, it is for all of us.  Yet even more, it belongs to the one who promises, “Surely, I am coming soon.” The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one—that Jesus who we know has come for us, with mercy and healing. In his promise and his name, the water is freely given—life is here in the sharing.

Last Thursday, the church observed the Feast of the Ascension when Christ left his disciples and ascended into heaven. He may have ascended, but make no mistake: Jesus is still with us, welcoming and healing and making us one.  Our Gospel lesson today is a prayer from the Gospel of John, which Jesus prayed at his last meal with his disciples. He prays for all of us who believe in him. “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”  We live in the Glory of God, we live in the divine life, not because we are so good, but because God loves us and dwells in us and we in him. We celebrate God’s glory because of the gift of the water of life.

Madonna CriteToday is also Mother’s Day.  We celebrate the gift and life and ministry of Mothers: those in our midst and those who have touched our lives.  When we talk about the indwelling of our life in God, mothers may particularly recognize what it means to have life indwelling and intertwined with their own.  Not just in the gestation and birth of a child—mothers’ nurturing never ends, they continue to be intertwined with children long after they have become adults. We appreciate mothers, and some are mothers who aren’t the biological mothers of those children they serve. Sometimes it is tempting to be sentimental about mothers and idealize their role. But there is nothing sentimental about it. Watching out for the well-being of a child is hard work, and the thanks that mothers get hardly balances the anxiety and sacrifice they put up with for the sake of those children. At least in the objective world. The miraculous thing is how frequently those mothers will tell you, right in the midst of the difficulty, that it is their greatest joy to be the mother of this boy, or that girl or all these children. There are lots of kinds of mothers—some are more saintly than others, some have more or less privilege to share with their children, some wish that they could be more patient, and others that they could do more things. Some have had to give up children into the care of others. The mother’s life is a real life with all of its joys and imperfections, just like every human life. But theirs, in particular, is interwoven in this intimate way with those children who they nurture.

So when Jesus says, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,” we should realize that intimacy of God with all of us is an analogy of the mother with her children: we are at once, the source of the greatest anxiety and the greatest joy for God. We are cared for abundantly and rejoiced over abundantly, even at those times that we might try to avoid loving all of God’s children, or properly attending to our spiritual responsibilities.

The Spirit and the Bride say: Come

And let everyone who hears say: Come!

And let everyone who is thirsty Come!

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord be with all the saints. Amen.