Month: August 2017

Do not be Conformed to this World

A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

I like to describe the context of the readings that I am preaching on. With many of Paul’s letters, we can uncover elements of his relationship with the church that he is addressing, he knows the people there and the problems that have emerged. But in the case of his letter to the church of Rome, Paul had never been to Rome. He only had vague ideas of what was going on there, and a few acquaintances among people he had met in his travels. This letter is an introduction of himself and his teaching to a place where he hopes to travel. So he is addressing Christians who he has not yet met. In other words, he may as well be speaking directly to us: “I appeal to you brothers and sisters, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

The appeal is to you, no less than to any other Christian who ever lived. Being a Christian is serious business, and it’s not just optional. Living a Christian life, means living in the service of the compassion of God, the source of all things, the source of all value. God is love, and to live as if love, compassion, and sacrifice for the good of others are not essential will destroy the fabric of society.

Paul continues: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed in your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The world here is what’s a given. It is not in its essence evil, but if we look around, we find it is the context in which evil occurs. The glories of creation and of loving and noble people are indeed in the world, as well as lives of sharing and mutual support. But this world is also a place where fear and hatred exist and all the evils that we see. But let’s leave those things aside for a moment.  When Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” I believe he’s referring to things where people usually say, “that’s just the way the world is.” Things that we think of as facts or principles—and that some then assert are neutral and value-free.

Self-interest is a given among human beings. People look out for themselves and their own interests, or the interests of their families. Anyone who claims to not ever act out of self-interest is simply not telling the truth. One of the reasons that religious people fall into disrepute is that some make elaborate claims of being holy and righteous in their actions, while it is apparent to anyone observing them that those actions are entirely self-interested. “Just send a check for a hundred dollars to our ministry and put your hand on the radio, and you will be cured.”

Self-interest is the way of the world. And the way in which you approach it is not value free. When people form their life around self-interest and self-interested goals, they create an isolated society, and a society of exploitation. For instance, there is good evidence that the origins of our modern views of race emerge from the financial interests of those people who needed a reliable and cheap source of labor for the colonial plantations of the 1600s and 1700s. Permanently enslaving a group of people could only be justified by arguing that those persons were either essentially designed to be owned or that they were intrinsically inferior. Somehow those evaluations of people from Africa seemed particularly convenient to people who had an economic self-interest in owning slaves.   A compelling self-interest has resulted in demeaning the dignity of other human beings in a way that has produced a fissure and illness in our society.

If human beings are formed into the characteristics of this world, they will fall into traps like this, sometimes less dramatic, yet nonetheless pushed in whatever direction: to be pure consumers, of whatever consumer society has on offer; or to join whatever clique seems most popular, regardless of one’s personal interests; or even to become a nationalistic sycophant, seeking power for one’s own group regardless of the consequences.  It is not so much that the world is evil, per se, but it has no values—and if we are conformed to no values, we quickly find that we are of no value and there is no value.

Paul then says, rather than being CONformed to the world, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” The will of God is in the image of Christ.

Christ reaching out his hand, to pull Adam (and the rest of the human race) out of Hell. “He descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead.”

Our minds are transformed by following Jesus, by seeking his way: the will of God as a life of compassion, of moral honesty, of courage. This is not to say that we should present ourselves as people who have achieved these things, or that we are above self-interest.  Quite the opposite. It’s essential that we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, who we are and where our self-interest lies, what directions the world is pushing us.  In knowing those things, we can continually present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be transformed, every day into the love of Christ. Paul points out that we are all different, we have many functions, many talents and gifts that differ from one another. The way in which each of is called to present herself or himself is distinct, and in that is the beauty of God’s creation.

But we’re here to seek God’s will, not the choices that the success of the world presents, but the challenges of the compassion of God, the will of God. As Paul said, “I appeal to you sisters and brothers to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

From our Psalm today:

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

You stretch for your hand against the fury of my enemies;

Your right hand shall save me.

The Lord will make good his purpose for me;

O Lord, your love endures for ever;

Do not abandon the works of your hands.

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It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August, 20, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The setting of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had been healing people on the shore of the lake, where they landed after that stormy night that we read about last week. People were broken, sick and infirm, and Jesus made them whole with his touch. And some religious people came along who were very worried about whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands properly. In fact, the healing didn’t matter at all to them, it was the forms of purity that were all-important. Jesus points out to these ultra-religious people that their technical compliance with rules is really a way to avoid complying with one of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.” Then, today’s passage begins and Jesus says to the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It would be a mistake to think that by saying this, Jesus is against Judaism or against a particular Jewish group, like the Pharisees, who were the most devout and active religious group in Palestine in those days.  Many prophets and rabbis had said similar things.

What Jesus was saying was: Stop trying to game the system. Stop using your religious observance as a way to feel superior to others. Once people get into positions of power – in business, in government, in the church – they often turn sanctimonious and say to others: If you’re not doing what I say you should do, then you’re defiled. Jesus won’t go along with this. It is what comes out from the inside that defiles, Jesus says. The products of hatred, disrespect and selfishness defile the people of God. “Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” How much do we see these on the national scene nowadays? How often are they excused – even by the President of the United States? How is it that his councils of advice have resigned, except for those religious leaders who he appointed to give him spiritual guidance?

It takes a transformation and cleansing of the heart to live the life of God’s compassion. It takes courage to heal. In our Gospel today, the religious people took offense. Jesus was aware that they would. People protect their selfishness, and their self-serving manipulations; especially religious people. The holiness of God is not revered by honoring a form, an image, an idol, a statue. God is revered by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity—seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our own hurts.  He gives us no room to be smug.

It’s no accident that the story about the woman whose daughter had a demon follows directly after this in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, of course, represent the church, and like the church, we love the disciples and we’re with them and they show us the truth of the Gospel as much in how they misunderstand it as by how they live it.  Jesus has moved from the scene of conflict with the Pharisees and healing the multitudes out to the coast. There’s some indication that he went out to the shore, to get away from a lot of what had been going on – not that different from why people are out on the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod right now. It was foreign territory and Jesus was on a break from his mission to change and heal his fellow people of Israel.

It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for preachers to criticize Jesus in this passage, putting themselves in a position of moral superiority, seeing Jesus as insulting the woman, not seeing the dignity of the woman or his responsibility toward her right away. I read it a bit differently. Jesus is walking and this woman makes her plea. And he remains silent, reflecting, taking it all in. She’s upset and she knows that Jesus casts out demons, and this is about her daughter who she loves. And Jesus is silent, just walking.  And the disciples are just like all these church people, and even, perhaps especially clergy, who have the quick answer, the decisive fix, and they know how to get rid of problems. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

I’m not certain who Jesus is talking to when he says the next sentence. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Maybe to the disciples. Not exactly as a reproof to them, but reminding them of his focus.  Maybe reflecting to himself, “who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman heard him and courageously and tenaciously engaged him. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she expands on the metaphor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs.”

Jesus says: “Great is your faith.” This isn’t because Jesus lost the argument, no matter how convincing the loving mother was. It’s that he understands her faithfulness. And her faithfulness isn’t to some doctrine or rule. Her faith is demonstrated through her deep compassion for another, for her child, which gives her the courage to stand up to Jesus.

We’ve seen another example just this week come out of a terrible national tragedy. That was when Heather Heyer’s mother said at her daughter’s funeral: “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got give her up, we’re going to make it count.” In the Gospel story the woman’s child is described as having a demon. There’s no specific or graphic description, but as I’ve said here before, that the demonic is a human, not a divine or magical reality. The demons are the results and symptoms of the evils of a society, where the angers, fears and selfishness are pushed off and dislocated: sometimes onto the weak or vulnerable, sometimes onto the most fearful or angry. Jesus saw this woman’s depth of faith and compassion and he said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the child was healed immediately, just as those in the crowds were healed, those people who Jesus addressed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord was not in the Wind

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.

If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.

So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with.  So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side.  Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.

Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.

I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.

Out there on the water there was no place to take cover.  The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.

And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.

So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today.  In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?

Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.

Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn.  A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.

Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.

 

Listen to him

A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is fixed on the day of August the sixth. Every few years that day is on a Sunday, and since it is a major feast of the Lord, it supersedes the lessons for the Sunday.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing, or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we are looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, God did with Moses, he set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost-free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being Jesus’ people—living in his resurrection—is not cost-free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own self-righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence—and not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets and Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. “This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one—the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

We listen to Jesus’ compassion, we know his healing; healing of hurt, sorrow, or despair. We listen to his words of hope—hope that will not disappoint us, because it is grounded in Jesus’ real presence with us, courageously, in this real world. The glory of God shines in his love that will never fade or abandon us.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.