Month: June 2016

He set his face to go to Jerusalem

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of the large middle section of the Gospel of Luke. Basically before this, Jesus has been preaching, teaching and healing in and around his home district of Galilee, but now, after the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in God’s glory on the mountaintop, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, he made his firm decision to bring his ministry to Jerusalem, the seat of the temple and the spiritual heart of Judaism.

This passage sets the tone. Jesus is not just wandering around, seeing what will happen or making occasional pronouncements. This journey is serious business. Much of the imagery is derived from the scriptural descriptions of the prophet Elijah, even when what Jesus says contrasts with the earlier prophet.  Elisha says to Elijah, “Let me kiss my father and my mother; and then I will follow you.” Elijah’s response was, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” But Jesus’ response was, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” I don’t think Jesus was undermining respect for family, and family obligations in this. However, his journey to Jerusalem, which clearly included his own crucifixion, was nonetheless an urgent journey to life. There was no turning back to focus on death.

Jesus had sent out messengers in advance to prepare the way for his journey. And some came to a Samaritan village, and that village rejected this journey to Jerusalem.  Most people don’t know much about the Samaritans. A small group of them still exists in Israel.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Israel—the northern part of the Kingdom of David that split off after the reign of Solomon. During the time of Jesus, there was a pretty substantial population of Samaritans in Palestine, definitely a minority in an area that was predominantly, but not exclusively Jewish. The Samaritans regarded themselves as descendants of Abraham who worshiped God properly, in the place and manner that Moses had spelled out. For the Samaritans, that place was Mount Gerizim, where they still offer sacrifices to this day, NOT in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had definite opinions about Jerusalem and most of them were unfriendly at best. So it isn’t that surprising that when these advance men for a trip to Jerusalem came into town, the Samaritans gave them the heave-ho.

James and John, the brothers also known as “the Sons of Thunder,” wanted to rain fire down on the Samaritan village and destroy it. After all, can’t those stupid Samaritans see the truth? Don’t they know that this is the Savior and he’s going to Jerusalem to save everybody? Shouldn’t we teach them a lesson? Jesus turns around and says, “No!” This is not a show of power, the Kingdom of God is about life, not about force and punishment and death.

And with Jesus, they moved on to the next village. His remarks make clear this is not a casual journey; it’s not a camping trip just for fun. This is a journey to life, and for life—but that life encompasses all the difficulties of real life, including danger and death. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to someone who glibly said he would follow him anywhere. This journey is serious business and it’s not about following some celebrity or hero around.

I love the final saying in this lesson, but it doesn’t make sense unless you’ve worked on man plowing field with horsesa farm. When you plow a field or plant seeds, whether you are using a tractor, or a mule to pull your plow, it is important to plow straight furrows, next to one another or the ground won’t be thoroughly or completely cultivated, or planted or mowed. Doing this is relatively simple—you look at a point ahead of you at the end of the field and keep going straight toward it. If you turn your head, you won’t go straight, usually you will veer off toward the direction you are looking. Just like driving a car in traffic without paying close attention. So Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom of God is God’s life-giving compassion for God’s people, which is to say—us, living in that compassion and living out God’s compassion in the world. In this whole lesson, Jesus is making clear that focusing on life is not trivial or easy. You can’t take your eye off the goal of abundant life, or turn around into self-indulgence or arrogance. There is no compassion or life in fire-bombing the Samaritans, or playing at following Jesus while being unprepared for Christian life in the long haul.

Here at Trinity, I have experienced life in the Kingdom. Remembering God’s compassion for all of us, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We walk with Jesus, and offer him our hospitality, he who has no place to lay his head.  With him we carry in us the gift of life and of love which we have received from those who have gone before us, and those with whom we share this day, and those who will continue to grow in Christ into the future. We share with him the path of life. Let us be thankful. Let us receive his generosity.

From today’s psalm:

O Lord, you are my portion and my cup;

it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;

indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the Lord always before me;

because he is at my right hand I shall not fail.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices;

my body shall rest in hope.

Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.

The gospel today is about what Jesus did for a man who was possessed by demons. Every time I baptize someone, I make sure to talk with them or their parents and godparents about the questions they will have to answer, especially the first two: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” And: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” The reason is that these evil powers, these demons, are real and they wreak havoc in our world. Contemporary people think of images of little devils with horns and tails and say, “those things don’t exist, we can just ignore all that stuff, that’s just old fashioned.” It is true, that the little superstitious creatures of horror movies don’t exist, but the demons that Jesus cast out are just as real today as ever.

Last year on Father’s Day the gospel was about Jesus stilling the storm on the lake. It ends: “He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” This year the gospel begins at the very next verse, “Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes.” Jesus was met by a man who had demons. It describes how his life was torn apart and destroyed by these evil powers: he had stopped wearing clothes and he lived in the tombs, not among the living but among the dead. And as soon as he sees Jesus, this frightening, frightened, angry and pitiful man gets right up in his face. Meanwhile, Jesus has been calling that spirit to come out of him. The man says, “Do not torment me”—but the torment is within him.

Spiritual powers that rebel against God and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God are primarily characterized by fear and hatred.  In the world that we live in, we often attribute this fear and hatred and wickedness to the individuals who we see that manifest them. The fear and hatred of individuals may feed these powers, and increase their intensity and reach, but these are demonic powers and they are not in the control of any single person. Often people are not even aware of the ways in which their actions are associated with the evil that these powers wreak on the world.

Jesus says, “What is your name?” And the man can’t even answer. The demon within him responds, “Legion.” A legion was a Roman military unit, terrifying in its power and the number of heavily armed soldiers who could overrun another army or a country. What possessed this man was not a simple fear, or a hatred of a single thing—the demon that ripped this man’s life apart and separated him from all society was a whole constellation of fears, they manifested in hatred of life itself, and even when the Life of the World invited him to life, he said, “DO NOT TORMENT ME!”

A week ago, over a hundred people were shot in Orlando, Florida. Over fifty were killed. People rightly responded in horror and pain to the awful events. But when you read the descriptions of the killer of the people in the Pulse nightclub—there are as many labels as there are fears: “terrorist,” “foreigner,” “self-hater.” Honestly—it doesn’t matter, his fears and hates were Legion, just like the man who dwelt in the tombs in Gerasa, two thousand years ago. The powers which corrupt this world are complex—simple characterizations like you see being offered by some of our politicians and those seeking political office aren’t going to solve society’s demons like racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. If we use them as amplifiers for our own fears and angers—or allow others to do so in our name—we just give more power to those demons.

And Jesus, the incarnate love of God, is still calmly standing there, waiting for the demons to come out of this man. Simple anger and fear eventually just go away. Sometimes, when Jesus cast out demons, they just disappeared in the face of his love and faithfulness. But with the complexity of demons like this one—where often the fear and the anger is interwoven with other things that people care about, or once loved or hoped for, this kind of power may be cast out, but it doesn’t disappear. The fear and the hatred and the destruction take up residence somewhere else.

Perhaps that’s the symbolism of the demons taking up residence, at Legion’s request, in the herd of pigs. The demon, like the human he possesses, doesn’t want to die. We see that today, when hatred of “the other” lives and feeds on itself and shows up in many different forms—sometimes they are embodied by people who are asking us for our vote or telling us the only way we can survive is to arm ourselves—because “the other” is coming!

Jesus is focused on the healing of this man. But the demons don’t just fade away—they persist and go swineelsewhere. There is loss—the herd of pigs is destroyed. Make no mistake about it: People are scared to let go of their demons—of their anger and their hate. If they gave it up—What? They might have to see this man who was once possessed by demons, living naked in the cemetery, who they discounted as human, sitting among them. They might have to accept him as their brother, and actually see him.

The man wanted to go with Jesus. He was healed and he wanted to stay that way. But Jesus told him another way to stay healed: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” It is the blessings that we receive from God that keep us healed. I thank God for all the healing I have received in this community, through the respect and courage and joy of Trinity Church which has upheld me. When we experience hope, or compassion or generosity it becomes part of us. The love of Fr. Newman, the dedication of Fr. Roberts, the generosity and friendship of Keith Warren continue to be part of us, even as they have gone to another shore.  God has blessed this church and continues to bless us.

On this Father’s Day, we remember that we have been blessed by fathers, both our own and those we have known. Of course, fatherhood is a broad category, encompassing all manner of men. But when I think of my own father, or the blessings that others receive from fathers, I think of someone who shares what he has—his skills, or his courage, or his wisdom.

What has God done for us? God has blessed us all, particularly in the love and courage and generosity of other people. In the church we have seen faithfulness, we have received love, we have been challenged to be followers of Jesus. And then Jesus got on the boat, and told that man who he had healed from all those evil powers to tell everyone how much God had done for him.

You remember, that man had found clothes and put them on after he was healed. As St. Paul told us today:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Please turn to page 499 in the Book of Common Prayer

Let us pray for all those who died in Orlando last week and all those who died a year ago in Charleston:

Give rest, O Christ to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.


He would have known

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 12, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.

Jesus was invited for dinner in the home of a devout religious man. He was a Pharisee named Simon. As I have said before, the Pharisees were not so much an organized group, but a category of people in ancient Judaism, devout and sincere, who took their religious observance seriously.  Not much different than those Christians who are attending church today. We miss Jesus’ point if we become smug and think of the Pharisees as a group of people with serious faults that we as Christians don’t share.

Devout people often are certain that they know the opinions of God and are glad to spell them out.  Simon thinks, “if this man were a prophet….” So the prophet is judged by the opinions of the devout and comfortable religious folk. Simon has a quick judgement of this woman—she’s a sinner. You know what that means.  Do we really? It doesn’t actually say what her sin or sins were. What is clear is that she was an individual or part of some group of which Simon did not approve.  Simon made assumptions about the woman, and about Jesus… and about God and what God wants. There is no reason to think that Jesus didn’t see what Simon saw, or that he did not know what Simon knew.

Jesus’ host was very disapproving, both of the sinner and of his guest, who some had called a prophet: “If At Jesus feetthis man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him.”  But Jesus paid attention to what was happening, not to the assumptions and judgements that anyone was making.  “Simon … you gave me no water for my feet—this woman washed them with her tears; you did not greet me with a kiss, but this woman kissed my feet…”

In their actions, the prophet indeed saw the inner truth of both the devout man and the sinful woman. It wasn’t that Jesus was admiring either person, nor condemning them.  But his parable reveals how is situated with God. “Which of them will love him more?” The one who is forgiven the greater debt—is how Simon responded—and that was correct. But the difference I see between the two, is who lived in greater thankfulness to God, which one realized the mercy and loving-kindness of God.  It is not great sins that bring the blessing of God, but a life of thankfulness and humility; a life of living in the truth and being courageous enough to say yes to Jesus.

It’s easy to become complacent after our long lives of virtue and achievement and to get tired of being thankful to God. To think that we have the method down and that our position as good people is secure.  The story about King David and the prophet Nathan illustrates this. David was powerful and much beloved. So much so that he decided he could take what he wanted, and he wanted another man’s wife. And he arranged for that man to die in battle to cover up his indiscretion.

And when the prophet Nathan told the story, the King was so enamored of his own power that he did not recognize himself in the prophet’s parable. David was even angry—how could anyone could be so terrible—he, the King, was going to make it right, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” “You are the man!” the prophet told him.

A big dramatic story. Perhaps too big—people identify themselves with Nathan or the lamb, or the poor farmer. But Jesus pointed out the same thing to the devout religious man who hosted him for dinner.  Who showed welcome? Who praised God for his mercy? Who recognized her sins that they might be forgiven?

We don’t show our devoutness by condemnation and disapproval, but by welcoming Jesus, caring for him; by living a life of thanksgiving, always aware that God is merciful to us. Every day.

“Those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bring the good news of the kingdom of God.”

God has looked favorably on his people!

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.”

That is from an earlier portion of the Gospel of Luke which was our Gospel in the Winter, shortly after the blizzard. Today, the Old Testament Lesson is what Jesus described. The prophet Elijah was sent out of Israel during a great drought and he lived with a widow in Zarephath, a Phoenician city along the southern coast of Lebanon. While he stayed with her, her meager store of flour and oil was miraculously maintained and continued to feed her and her son and the prophet throughout the drought. But then her son mysteriously took ill and died. That was a greater tragedy for this mother than if she had starved to death herself.Mother & Child -Crite

Elijah takes the dead boy, and prays—how could God’s gift of life and abundance be taken away like this? God had given nourishment as a sign of God’s love to the gentiles—the child’s death disrupted this, it made the widow’s nourishment for naught. So the prophet prayed. And God restored life to the child.

In this world, children die who are not brought back to life. And indeed, both that woman and her child eventually did die. It is not God’s design that there is no tragedy or pain or death in this world. We know that there is. This event, this story is a prophetic sign: Elijah was God’s prophet, and he was sent to show that it is God who gives life, restores life—not the kings of Israel, nor the prophets of Baal, nor any powers that claim to rule this world.

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus mentioned this story in a sermon, the congregation decided to throw him off a cliff.  He slips away, preaches the good news to the poor, heals the sick, he enlightens the people with his teaching, and in today’s Gospel, he does just the same sign as Elijah did in Zarephath: he restores to life the only son of a poor widow—a widow in a gentile town.

No wonder then, that the Gospel lesson concludes with this about the crowds who witnessed it: “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has fulfilled the prophecy which he read at the beginning of his ministry, in his home town of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And you remember he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” as he began that sermon that inspired the congregation to throw him off a cliff.

As word got around about Jesus being a prophet, it did not make things any easier. Everyone, especially devout religious people, always want the prophet to say and mean things just the way they want them. We want God to reinforce our prejudices, to make us comfortable and send us home, confirmed in our smugness, knowing that we are right and have always been right. Jesus, somehow, didn’t fit that bill. God’s prophets aren’t there to fulfill the desires of those who want to be comfortable and at ease. They are sent by God to move us forward. Forward in compassion, in truthfulness, in humility. Jesus pointed out that Elijah was not sent to any of the suffering widows in the land of Israel, but to one who was outside, in a foreign land, out on the coast.

Last week, Jesus healed the slave of the gentile officer in charge of the Jewish town of Capernaum. This week he ministered to a widow that nobody cared about. Jesus is a prophetic sign of God’s openness, God’s compassion, God’s invitation to be more than just comfortable. Jesus knew, at all times, that his way of courageous compassion was the pathway to the cross. Good news to the poor sounds harmless enough, except when it happens in the real world—and Jesus was definitely in the real world.

In Christ, we have been given God’s mercy. That mercy is life to share—both at home, but also far abroad as the prophet Elijah did with that widow in a foreign land. Jesus heals and gives life, but often, it’s a surprise how he does that—outside of our expectations, maybe outside of how we conceive that things “have always been done.”

The neighborhood in which this congregation bears witness and gathers to worship has changed many times in the past 100 years or so. The shape of the ministry of this congregation has changed along with it.  This congregation here gathered is the Body of Christ in this place—as Christ’s body we are called to allow Jesus to surprise us and change us. The after-school ministry, teaching ceramics to local middle school students changes us—other possibilities, such as interns living on our property and serving the community, will also change this congregation. Each step of welcoming the stranger, and of serving God’s people transforms Trinity further into the image of Christ. We welcome Christ as he brings new life to us in every change. As they said: “God has looked favorably on his people!”

Let us pray in the words of today’s psalm:

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.