Month: June 2017

A prophet’s reward

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Our lesson from the book of Jeremiah this morning shows two prophets in conversation, Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has just made a prophesy:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house… and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.”

As we read it in today’s lectionary, it would appear that Jeremiah is agreeing with him:

“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.”

All of the people of Judah deeply wanted this good news, and so did Jeremiah. He wanted the restoration of the wholeness of the people and peace with all his heart. There’s only one problem. Hananiah’s prophecy was not true. The story continues this way: Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke, which Jeremiah had put on his own back to represent the rule of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. And then, Jeremiah has another word from God: “Go tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken the wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” Hananiah died within a month and the exiles remained in Babylon seventy more years.

Jeremiah had not been exactly agreeing with Hananiah. Not at all. Hananiah had painted a vision for his country that had everything that everyone wished for. Jeremiah wanted the same things, but he was skeptical. It did not fit with what he honestly saw, or the words he heard from God.

“The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient time prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

In the words of modern-day twitterspeak, shorter Jeremiah would be: IF. If the word comes true, then the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

In our church and in our country, people are anxious for good news, for news of peace and prosperity. Sometimes, we try to cut the story short, looking for a quick, happy ending. Even the framers of the lectionary seem to want to cut the story short in a misleading way, so that things can be peaceful and resolved on a summer morning.  But the false prophet Hananiah brought nothing but a brief, transitory false hope, based on a story made up from the wishes and fantasies of people.

The word of God, however, is only the story of truth, and that can contain some darkness, nastiness and evil. It can take longer to realize than we wish. The falseness of wishful thinking can make things worse: Jeremiah pronounced that the consequence of Hananiah’s removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s back was that an iron yoke was placed on the people of Israel—wishful thinking about Nebuchadnezzar did not make the Babylonians go away or make their rule any more humane. It did not shorten the time of exile or reduce its pain. The only prophesy that could give any healing or hope is the truth. Jeremiah sternly spoke the truth of God’s love and called the people to return to God—to God’s truth and God’s love.

This weekend is when we celebrate Independence Day in our country. We rejoice in love of country and express our patriotism.  Just as Jeremiah did. We are in a troubled country at a troubled time. For many, the solution is to express hopefulness and say that all will be well if we simply express our loyalty to happy outcomes that are just around the corner.  Throughout the whole book of Jeremiah, the prophet was constantly running afoul of that kind of view—he might want things to turn out fine with a minimum of conflict and suffering—but he had to tell the truth. Likewise, in our country, we have to live with and acknowledge the truth of the fearfulness, anger, distrust and dishonesty that arises around us. Of cruelty masquerading as political necessity and thoughtless panic taking the place of constructive engagement. I’m not going to talk about policies here, or about personalities, but there is no magic solution in our country. Patriotism and hope can only emerge in full truthfulness and courageous compassion.

The same can be said for the church at the present time: the Episcopal Church and all Christian churches. Quick and superficial fixes will not address the issues and anxieties of the present time. It is only in the truth that there is a pathway forward.

The truth is simple: it’s what is in this morning’s Gospel: “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” It is our anxieties that are complex. Like those who listened to Hananiah, we want a quick solution that restores everything to its previous comfort. However, that is not, and never has been the promise of God.

The prophet who prophesies peace and delivers it in truth is Jesus. For our country or our church, all he offers is truth. Truth that is not magic or easy. The peace that he gives is found in living his compassion—that is a very challenging peace indeed, but the rewards are greater than the return of the vessels from Babylon.

We are welcomed into this world by God, and we live by extending that welcome:

Listen once more to what Jesus said:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

God’s love has been poured into our hearts

A sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

 

This year, the lectionary takes the gospel lessons from the Gospel of Matthew. You might remember that in January and February, there were several Sundays from the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings. The first section begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and its last section begins, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That is chapters five through seven.

Today’s gospel reading begins in the last part of the ninth chapter. What happened in the two chapters that lead up to it? When Jesus came down from the mount, he began healing people. In these two chapters, I count nine separate stories of Jesus healing one or more people, as well as another when he calmed a storm while his anxious disciples were out at sea in a small boat. There is nothing accidental about this. Hard-headed historical scholars agree that what we know about Jesus is that he was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate governed in Jerusalem and that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. Jesus was not a generic miracle worker, and he was not an innovative philosopher—his teachings were clarification and holding people accountable to the scriptures: Jewish law and the teachings of the prophets.

So he looks up and sees the crowds—I think we can safely take that to signify all of humanity, every person, particularly at some time—and Jesus has compassion, because there they are harassed and helpless—the Greek could as easily be read, “troubled and cast-down, or oppressed.” They are like sheep without a shepherd: anxious, aimless, in danger of being scattered and harmed. Jesus had been healing, bringing health to a number of people, but unhealth and evil still affected the community.

At this point in the Gospel the section introducing Jesus’ teaching and healing comes to an end. The call of the disciples, which began just before the Sermon on the Mount is completed, and we get the list of the twelve. Now they have seen, and learned, and Jesus sends them out: “Proclaim the Gospel, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Notice that Jesus sends them out without equipment, supplies or the wherewithal to purchase them. The disciples are not donors or patrons or the people in charge. All they have to give is peace. In other words, they bring the compassion of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. The compassion of the one, who they would learn later, would be crucified for that very compassion.  What they bring is the Spirit of God, which is the love of God, caring for the well-being of God’s creatures before all else—before even self.

Jesus can send out these twelve because they themselves have been healed. They have received not just the outward blessing of a commission, but also the inner healing from God as they have gone about with Jesus. They have not only seen him giving peace and healing, but he has given his peace to them—in that little boat, he woke up, and rebuked the winds, and there was total calm. It is out of that calm, that peace, that they can now go to the towns and villages and tell about the Kingdom of Heaven.

At this point, Trinity Church is at a somewhat similar time. Mother Margo has begun her sabbatical, and so also Trinity as a congregation begins its sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time of refreshment more than anything else. We are Christ’s disciples because of what we receive, not because of what we do. In living lives of thankfulness and embodying Christ’s compassion many things may be done. Yet all that we can really share or give is the peace of God and the compassion of God, as did the twelve that Jesus sent out.

A sabbatical is a time for reflection on the gifts of God’s compassion that we have received and continue to receive. This is an opportunity to pause—and listen. The peace of God comes to the fore—at the right time, in God’s time, all of Jesus’ disciples become part of the network of Christ’s compassion in this world. In other words, things do happen, but in this summer of sabbatical, let us take time to listen—to realize the true source of our peace, which is God—to put aside the anxieties of our world, our country and our personal challenges, and believe in the truth—the compassion of Jesus. We have one shepherd, it is Jesus. Our faith is in him.

St. Paul put it this way, in his letter to the church at Rome:

Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.