Month: July 2017

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems; or a friend to stand along with a friend in need.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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You would uproot the Wheat along with the Weeds

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

So the scene is the same as last week’s gospel. Jesus is still out on the boat, talking to the same people he as talking to on the beach about seeds. As the story continues, the field is planted, and inexplicably, there are all sorts of weeds growing among the grain. The word for “weed” refers to something similar to what we called, “cheat grass” where I grew up. It resembles grain, except it’s inedible for people and gives little sustenance to livestock. But you can’t easily see the difference between it and grain until it starts to blossom and grow its seed. By then it has developed a root system that is much more extensive and stronger than wheat.

The servants see the problem—weeds! Invasive weeds, taking up the soil and nutrients and water! Bad thing, we must do something! Just like everybody else, they see a problem, get anxious about it, and jump to a solution. The farmer, however, looks with the eye of experience. The weeds are going to reduce his yield, there is no doubt. But if these weeds are pulled up now, the grain will be removed at a greater rate than the weeds, and the yield will go down to zero. During this cycle, the number of weeds is the number of weeds, leaving them won’t result in more, so leave them. We will get the wheat that ripens—we will deal with the weeds when there is wheat to harvest. The fruit of the wheat field will nourish people, provide bread, be sold to supply for the needs of the farmer’s household. A superabundance of weeds is only one of the ordinary calamities that typically face farmers; that make a situation that promises easy abundance into difficulty and privation. The farmer waits and judges the ripeness of the wheat. At the right time the weeds are pulled out and separated from the nourishing crop. There is a big bonfire, getting rid of the nuisance and the waste. Then the remaining wheat is gathered—and there is food for all.

So why is this, as Jesus said, like the Kingdom of Heaven?  Note first of all that this is a real-world situation—we expect a beautiful, uniform field of wheat, growing perfectly, moving from green in the springtime, to golden at harvest—but what we get is disrupted by weeds and other occurrences, that are just not ideal. I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. And the Kingdom of God happens in the real world, a world with difficulties and disappointments.  And indeed, some of those things that happen are evil, or are the result of evil.  So, we don’t just say that whatever happens is fine, or certainly not that it is the will of God. We stand up to evil for the sake of the good of others. But we don’t go around weeding out imperfections, as if every annoyance or imperfection was evil.

Those servants were very anxious about those weeds. That’s understandable—the weeds were going to reduce the yield and make them look like they weren’t doing their job properly. But acting on that anxiety could have been utter disaster, resulting in a long winter with little or no food available. In living with imperfection and disappointment the community grows and shares in God’s love. And when evil—that is to say those forces that hurt and destroy the children of God through selfishness, fear or hatred—when evil afflicts such a community, the love of that community gives it the courage and resilience to respond and repel the evil and to be a source of life for God’s children.

I’m not convinced that the ending of this lesson, with its apocalyptic allegory, fits with Jesus’ original story. It’s a bit annoying that the framers of the lectionary left out the two intervening parables so that the interpretation naively appears to be a part of the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the weeds is followed by the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast. Then the party breaks up and Jesus goes into the house with his disciples where they ask for more explanation.  That literary break is very important—we move from the public ministry of Jesus to the organized teaching of the disciples—that is to say, the church of Matthew’s day.  In the Matthew Gospel, the problematic weeds are evil people, reflecting the intense conflicts of the church in the last decades of the first century.  But still, note this: the ambiguity is the same. It is not up to the disciples or the children of the kingdom to decide and separate the weeds and the wheat—it is angels that do the reaping at the end of the age. Until then we grow together.  As for the consequences of evil being a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth… if you claim the right to be truly and unrepentantly evil, hurting and destroying the children of God… well … we all take our chances, don’t we?

However, this story is not about punishment or destruction. It is about the challenge of life in the real world. Life in Christ is life in hope—a community that shares life and finds life in the mercy that God has for each of us, for all of God’s children.

St. Paul is addressing this in this morning’s epistle:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” It is that Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him.

 

That reference, to “Abba” may in fact be the earliest reference we have to the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus gave his disciples—we are disciples in being God’s children: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Paul did not address idyllic and perfect Christian communities, he wrote to churches who experienced conflict or suffering. And he continues:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We are God’s people, gathered here. Our hope is in the divine reality of a community gathered in diversity and imperfection, discovering God’s mercy together.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of you Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The seed of the Kingdom

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As many of us would like to be during the summer, Jesus was at the beach.  Today’s Gospel says he “sat beside the sea.”  Then it got way too crowded, so he got on a boat and started to tell the people stories.

The parable of the Sower is well known, though people today may not be as well-acquainted with the behavior of seeds and plants as Jesus’ first hearers would have been.  The image is of a farmer or farmhand planting grain in the spring.  Today, this is done with large machines that plant all the seeds in precise rows at a very high volume per minute.  A farmer in ancient times had to do all this by hand, reaching into his bag of seed and flinging the seed across the plot of ground. The skilled and careful farmer would be sure that most of the seed fell on the good soil that had been tilled; the less careful worker might have more of his seed go astray.

Some waste was the norm, as Jesus’ listeners knew full well, so it’s not as though they would think that some seed landing on a footpath, or rocks, or thorns, meant that the farmer was not realistic, or even a particularly careless fellow.  The last section of today’s gospel reading has an allegorical interpretation of the parable. It is portrayed as being in another context at another time. Certainly that allegory is a common way that this story has been interpreted, but there is good reason to believe that Jesus first presented the story to be listened to and understood literally, on its face as a story about the familiar world.

The farmer sowing seed is a familiar bit of reality, and in that reality, we can see the real difficulties of life—the complete loss when birds take the seed before it can sprout; the immediate hope in seeing seed quickly sprout followed by disappointment at the equally fast failure of the weak seedlings on the rocky ground.  This situation is not unlike what we experience in our personal lives as well as in the church. Things go wrong, sometimes dramatically, sometimes in minor ways, and our enthusiasm can be undercut when things turn out not to be as well founded as we believed.  Jesus’ world is the Kingdom of God.  That Kingdom partakes of reality as stark as that of anyone’s world.

But the focus of this parable is not on the thorns and troubles pressing in on every side.  The bulk of the seed landed on good, fertile soil and the yield was amazing! A hundredfold, sixty-fold, even thirty-fold was several times higher than the yield Jesus’ hearers reasonably expected from their crops.   The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of our ordinary reality, and Jesus has sympathy with the difficulties we find in the real world.  But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good.  We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out in the most comfortable possible way for us. In fact, the opportunity to be generous, gives those who provide a bit of the bounty of the Kingdom, though we should always take care that what we do is for the sake of others and not simply to make ourselves feel good.  By giving, the church can become God’s Church, but it is not the success of that institution called Church that is the yield of the Kingdom.  The love of God, always supporting us and giving the opportunity to serve God’s people, that is the Kingdom of God, and the bounty of life, and the reality of our lives all at the same time.

This summer, our New Testament epistle readings are from the letter of Paul to the church at Rome.  Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom of God,” but what he preaches is very much about the same kingdom I have been talking about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Despite the power of sin, and any struggles or shortcomings, there is no condemnation.  For Paul, as well as Jesus, the overwhelming joyful news of God’s coming is in the midst of the difficulties of the real world.  The gifts of God, and the possibilities for us in this world, transformed by his kingdom, are enormous—unlimited even.  If the everyday difficulties cause someone to stumble, to lose confidence or even to do bad things, she or he is not condemned or lost.  Each of us is the child of Christ and part of his body.  Paul continues: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

You are the field in which the seed of God’s kingdom is planted and also the agents to nurture that Kingdom.  It is through God’s spirit, and not by our strength or talent that the Kingdom grows.  Accept the gift of the spirit of Christ in you, and rejoice in God’s bounty: Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.

My Yoke is Easy

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Those of us who grew up long ago in the Episcopal Church recognize the first part of this as the “Comfortable Words” that were said right after the confession and absolution every week in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer communion service. Sometimes they are said in the Rite I Eucharist. When I think about it, it is very appropriate to hear these words every week—Jesus says who he is for everyone—I will give you rest—my yoke is easy. The Gospel is good news for everyone; you don’t have to be one of the elite. His yoke is easy, and you don’t have to be a great mystic exercising ascetic discipline, you don’t have to be smart or well educated, you don’t even need to be as well-off as your neighbors, or as good as you expect yourself to be. “Come to me”—Jesus welcomes each one, and refreshes us all, particularly in our harried, too fast, too many expectations contemporary existence.

All of us need to hear that regularly, and anybody who thinks they have outgrown it or is too advanced to need it, is probably mistaken. That’s what Jesus says to us, but what do we say to one another? The top of today’s Gospel lesson has a pretty good summary: Jesus compares the current generation – I think the current generation 2,000 years ago was probably not measurably different than the generation we are in – he compares them to bratty kids in the market place, who complain whether somebody dances or whether they mourn. Nothing is ever good enough or satisfactory. Sometimes it’s noted how mean kids can be, I’ve certainly seen it and even been on the receiving end of it when I was a child. However, people don’t actually outgrow that, they just get better at concealing it, though maybe not, if you spend much time on Twitter or Facebook.

Jesus points out that religious people were the same way with John the Baptist and with him. John was a scary prophet, who spent a lot of his time fasting, praying and calling people to repentance. Rather than listening to him, those who represented themselves as religious said, “Oh, he has a demon, and besides I don’t like his choice of clothes.” Jesus, on the other hand, spent a lot of time enjoying people, extending hospitality and accepting hospitality from others. The same people responded, “Way too much partying here, and those people he welcomes are just not the right kind of people.”

Jesus’ words are comfortable and simple: Come to me—Everyone! Rest with me awhile. But people, often those who claim to be the very ones to whom Jesus is extending his invitation, will find ways to make those words complicated and definitely uncomfortable, especially for those who are not the right kind of people.

Someone once said, “Since we know that at least one homeless person will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, we ought to be careful about the way we treat the rest of them.” People like to draw circles around themselves and have some people inside the circle and others outside. But Jesus makes it hard for us to get away with that kind of thing. For one thing, he had the very characteristics that people of his time—and some still in our time—would use to exclude him. He was a Jew, he hung around with sinners and, in regard to sinners, he was an equal opportunity offender: tax collectors and political collaborators, the poor and the zealot anti-Roman insurrectionists, the prostitutes and the Pharisees, the widows and centurions were all people with whom Jesus shared hospitality and his life.

Jesus leads us into a realm that includes possibilities that we resist, and welcome that we often can’t believe. Thus he said,

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Beyond our power and planning, the Kingdom of God is built by the innocence of infants, yet includes even the arrogant and the fearful, and others who are not as welcoming as Jesus. It even includes our political opponents and those who are clearly mistaken. For all of us are called in those comfortable words:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”