Month: October 2017

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

It is fairly common for Christians to think because Jesus says this in a controversy with the Pharisees, that he came up with it, or at least that he was saying something that they disagreed with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ answer was from the scriptural text that is most important to all Jews, and certainly the Pharisees. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, it is known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus is telling these figures of the religious establishment that he fully shares and agrees with the most essential point of their belief: that it is God and God alone that deserves reverence and obedience.  In fact, in the Gospel of Luke, a young lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and it is the lawyer who tells Jesus exactly the words that Jesus repeats to the Pharisees. It’s not complicated, it’s not secret, it’s not innovative—it’s just very serious business.

In Luke, the young lawyer tries to justify himself, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. You’ll have to wait until that text comes up for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, however.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Act like you love the Lord with all your heart” or “be really showy with how pious you are” or “tell everybody if they don’t believe and act just like you do that they will be damned to hell.” The command is to live in God’s love—always—at all times and in all ways. Most people have a god that is far too small, a mascot god that does what they want, makes them comfortable, helps them feel justified in however they do things. That is not the One God of Scripture. The true and only God is no one’s mascot. I once calculated approximately how far a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled in the 13 billion years since the Big Bang—80 sextillion miles and change. All of that distance, in all directions, could fit in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love is likewise infinite and it is not subject to manipulation—by magic, or self-serving rhetoric, or use of power over others, or by any attempt to turn the Gospel upside down.

We like to duck out of our responsibility to the one God, who created everything that is and who loves even the poorest of god’s creatures, and find some kind of religious expression that will confirm our prejudices and privileges. It’s always a temptation. Jesus came to hold people to the truth—I think that is what is behind his question at the end of this lesson about the Messiah—the Pharisees were looking back at an idea of the Kingdom of God based on David the monarch of Israel from a thousand years before—Jesus says the Kingdom of God is infinitely more. Ultimately, Jesus speaking the truth and meaning it resulted in the discomfort that led to his crucifixion.

That seems like a big jump, but it’s not. Because it is not a matter of words or philosophies and discussion groups. The problem was Jesus really meant it and held people accountable to loving God in their lives and actions.

It was not a controversial or unusual thing to continue his quote from the Shema with his next sentence: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That quote comes from the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus, which lays out how the holy people of God are supposed to behave. Thus, it interprets what it is to love God with all your heart in terms of a person’s behavior. Loving other people and valuing their welfare every bit as much as you value your own is living the love of God.  The God of heaven and earth leads us beyond what is good for us and into what is good. Abundant life is life for others, living in generosity, living in God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength. Living this way is not a matter of being more religious or better than the ordinary—actually it is very ordinary and it isn’t optional at all.  Being connected in love is what gives life—it is redirecting concern toward maintaining ourselves or our own community that causes life to shrivel.

At Calvary, we have the opportunity to live for others. Some of us walked last week in the CROP walk up in Clinton. Some of us will give contributions today for the relief of those affected by recent natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and California. Over the next months we will have the opportunity to reflect on how our lives, our life together and our individual lives in the world of work and community, affect the well-being of others and how we can grow in compassion.

Let us pray once more our Collect for today:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

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Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Philippi from prison. The word that is translated here as “Rejoice,” is Chairete. There is a footnote in my Bible which says it could also mean “Farewell.” It is a word that was frequently used for a greeting – it means joy, but also connotes peace, quite similar in usage to the Hebrew word Shalom. As Paul reaches this last section of the letter where he sums up and bids his farewell, he emphasizes it, like, “Farewell in the Lord, but I mean, really, Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices in this community which he came to love long before and in the love of God. He rejoices in the ability to live for others and to encourage the Philippians, and he encourages the Philippians to rejoice, not in what they have received for themselves, not in any comfort or material well-being, but in their ability to serve and give to others.

Some of the most encouraging and inspiring Christian writings have come from pastors who were imprisoned. In the twentieth century Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The notable thing about these writings from faithful pastors is that they don’t dwell or focus on their own plight, or even how God might be doing something for them, or how they feel about things. Rather their perspective of concern for their correspondents on the outside emphasizes God’s call. In the case of Dr. King, he was reminding his fellow pastors of God’s call to justice and compassion for those who were oppressed by unjust laws; in the case of Bonhoeffer he was sending encouragement to family, friends and colleagues in the ministry for them to have courage and hope in the midst of the Nazi terror and the raging war around them. Near the end of Dr. King’s letter he writes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

St. Paul gives thanks for the ministries of two women in the congregation, women who had struggled along with him in his work—he encouraged them to continue steadfast and enjoined the congregation to support them in that. He rejoices in the opportunity to serve, and to see the service that others extend to others in the love of God. Knowing his perspective was from prison made his words of thanksgiving and encouragement all the more potent, for he was not serving himself, but the Kingdom of God.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek word meaning “gentleness” refers to flexibility and reasonableness, the opposite of rigidity or harshness—everyone should know that when they approach you, you will be humble and listen.  Paul is not saying this to showcase people who are naturally gentle, but rather to remind each of us that our interactions with one another require flexibility from the outset and at all times.

Then he says, “the Lord is near, do not worry about anything.”  Usually when somebody says that, the smart and worldly answer is, “Easy for you to say.”  This is one of the things about letters from prison. That cynical, discouraged and often argument-winning remark comes up short against the reality of what it means to be in prison. We don’t know whether it was at the end of this imprisonment or some later imprisonment that Paul was beheaded.  When he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he means it, and he’s not whistling in the dark. He’s not talking about ignoring his chains or our situation. He’s not talking about giving up on planning or concern about the realities of finances, of expenses or of revenue. What St. Paul is saying is exactly what is not easy to say: the outcomes of our planning, and the vagaries of human existence may not be what we envision, and our comfort may be intruded upon, but God remains present and his mercy is with us—encouraging us in our gentleness of spirit to rejoice rather than to worry.  It is not that our physical wellbeing and our presence in this world does not matter—Paul encourages all of our desires and needs and concerns to be expressed in prayer to God. But note, each of those prayers is to be with thanksgiving, thanksgiving that Paul gives for the generous and helping spirit of his congregation, of their concern beyond themselves.

As we are bound in the network of prayer into the body of God’s love we discover the peace of God. That peace is not from material security—it is the peace that comes from the prison, whether it is in Birmingham, Berlin, or Ephesus—the peace of rejoicing in the generosity of God known in the love and generosity of God’s people.

Here at Calvary, we live in God’s generosity–on Friday we shared in the fellowship of the Oktoberfest celebration. We encourage one another in our ministries in our everyday lives, as we all grow into the compassion of God in Jesus. We will soon celebrate the love of our neighborhood children on Halloween and then the following Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we will baptize Flynn and Grant, affirming our own baptisms for the sake of their Christian lives going forward. We have much to rejoice about.  Primarily it is that peace of God, that Shalom of God, which surpasses anything we can understand, figure out or worry about—it is that peace that guards our hearts and gives us opportunity to rejoice.  Let us listen to Paul’s final words of farewell, that is, rejoicing—you can see that in the farewell is the beginning of an ongoing path of abundant life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the beginning of the law as God gave it to Moses—it is the Ten Commandments. They are worth memorizing, and certainly that was one of the virtues of the old-fashioned way of doing things—such texts would be absorbed into people’s minds, their way of doing things, into their hearts. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 and 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer. It wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memory.

I noticed something in looking over the text, however. The text of the first four commandments is more than three-quarters of the text of the ten commandments. Why is that? The law is not a set of rules that we can use to protect ourselves by obeying them. The living God is far too free and dangerous for that little fantasy of ours to be true. The law is the statement of the relationship between God and God’s people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God’s mercy brings his people out of the house of slavery. God is the God of compassion, justice and life—no other God is acceptable. A God who does not bring life and freedom is no true God.

The next three commandments—about idols, making wrongful use of the name of God, and about the Sabbath continue to define who God is in relation to God’s people. The other six commandments define our relationship to God as well—being accountable to living a responsible life in God’s community. But let’s consider the longest of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…

And it continues for thirty-six more words. God has defined our relationship according to mercy, compassion, justice, life. Bowing down in worship to things of the world change that focus to things like power, wealth, personal success. To win any of those things is not intrinsically merciful, compassionate, just or life giving. In ancient Israel, idolatry referred to what anthropologists might call “magic,” which is to say using things of this world to manipulate powers in the world. This was done, largely, for individual advantage, or the advantage of one’s close associates. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t really that this magic or those powers didn’t exist but rather that bowing to them violated the relationship with God—it could mean worshiping death, or the means of death for others rather than devotion to the God of Life, of Compassion, of Truth. The true God, the ultimate God is the God of life and mercy. The powers of death are not an alternate God, they are powers and things within this world which take advantage of the fears, selfishness and dishonesty of human beings. We moderns tend to think that we have outgrown such things, but they are very much real and very much with us.  That is why the first question in presenting a person for baptism is: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Think about this world, all the systems, organizations and ideologies that pressure and manipulate people’s decisions and feelings. The almost magical way that Google or Facebook presents you with ads that are tailored to your own very needs, the ways in which we ourselves conclude derogatory things about members of groups that we aren’t part of—based on—repeated rumors that we might hear on our favorite radio station, or things on our twitter feed, or the feelings and attitudes of parents, friends and relatives. These things have precious little to do with the God of mercy, justice and compassion. The God who freed the slaves and brings his children to safety.  Worshiping forces in this world—be they the internet, or political party, some idea of the power of science (other than the real truth of science which is that it is supposed to be about trying things out and being honest about mistakes and when hypotheses need to be changed) or social pressure—worshiping any of these things and bowing down to them breaches the relationship of faith in the Living God. Often people do not see how they are drifting into the worship of death until it is too late.

A priest that I know became very concerned when a girls’ softball team in a neighboring town advertised a raffle of an assault rifle to raise money to go to a tournament. He offered to pay their expenses instead, but that couldn’t happen since the raffle had been announced already.  So he bought most of the tickets and won the rifle.  He announced that he would have it destroyed and turned into a work of art.  This had some notoriety for a while and he received all sorts of messages.  He shared one of them with me. The person took him to task for destroying the gun. Like me, Fr. Jeremy has had plenty of experience with the rough language that filled the message, but what was striking was what he said, “how dare you destroy that beautiful weapon? How would you feel if someone smashed an image of Jesus Christ?”

I’m sure he would deny it, but in his message this man put a gun on a level with the Word made Flesh, God come amongst us. Note that the man had no claim to the gun, it belonged to Jeremy, a machine made of metal, wood and plastic. But its symbolic function was powerful enough to trigger his outrage—to call the destruction of this machine made from the earth, an act of blasphemy. Holiness, reverence and worship was invested in this machine, whose design was solely to cause death.

There are many such symbols, systems and ideas in this world, which serve a God-given purpose but which become idols, controlling the allegiance of people and turning them to the worship of death.

A week ago, a man broke out some windows from his high-rise hotel room and sprayed a crowd with automatic gunfire for ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500. From what we have learned so far, Stephen Paddock wasn’t known very well, not even by the two wives and a girlfriend he had lived with. It’s a fair bet that we will come to know much about him and his grievance. Such a grievance couldn’t be proportional to the death and injury he caused—that could only be proportional to emptiness and fury that gives reverence to death over life.

 

Idolatry is commitment to powers that are contrary to life, contrary to God—gaming this world by using the power of death to get an advantage.

.           It is the God of Life who brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is the God of life that brought Jesus into this world to proclaim his mercy and compassion. If is the God of life that raised Jesus from the dead and who makes life, compassion, justice and peace possible for all his people. Do not join with those who make idols in our time, and do not bow down to them.