Month: November 2017

Lord, when was it that we saw you?

A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 26, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…

Today is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is often called the Feast of Christ the King and it is indeed the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. Funny thing about that though—the King we celebrate is powerless. He has no wealth, no army, he doesn’t even have much influence with the powerful or the wealthy. How does this king rule? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger…”

Jesus is a stranger…in this world of ours he doesn’t fit in. Certainly not with those who make it clear that people are to be judged as good people based on their success in making money and fitting in with the “right kind of people.” Jesus was all about hospitality, about welcoming people and attending to their needs. And plenty of the people he welcomed and feasted with, were one way or another the wrong kinds of people: tax collectors, sinners, women accused of being prostitutes—even those Samaritans, that ethnic group that was just a little bit on the wrong side of the religious and ethnic divide from Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

So this stranger Jesus is the King we celebrate. But not a foreign king like Alexander the Great, the Greek who conquered the world, or Augustus, the Roman emperor who ruled the world up to Jesus’ time. Jesus is strange because power, prestige and control are not what he’s about.

The image he presents in the Gospel reading today is this:

The judgment day is presented, and the Son of Man is standing on the plain with all the angels, sorting out people just the way

that everybody knew a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats into separate groups, treating each species according to its own needs and nature.

I read it this way: After it’s all over, after the course of life is run, we’ll just see. The Son of Man comes in glory to invite his people in. It is really the invitation that he has been giving us all along, and the kingdom is not so much different as we have right now, truth be told. It’s just hard to see it sometimes amidst our anxiety and worry—perhaps it’s difficult to see the kingdom while we ourselves are busy producing the problems that the Kingdom of God heals. But Jesus is here.

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Calvary’s Good Shepherds who work with Mother Ann to visit and care for the sick and shut-ins of our community. Our youth group gathers together to support one another and to reach out for the good of others—today they are putting up the Angel Tree, which gives us an opportunity in cooperation with Readington Township Social Services to give gifts and convey caring and hope to people who are having a difficult time and perhaps not seeing so much brightness in the coming season. Our parishioners share the joy of Christ’s love with our community in hosting Halloween Trick or Treaters and having a float in the Christmas Parade. This Friday some of us will take warm hats and scarves as well as needed toiletries and supplies to the Seaman’s Church Institute to give to merchant sailors who are far from home and often quite isolated. And our Way of St. Paul Group is working hard on listening to one another and all of you in the congregation—in helping us work on ways to foster deeper connection among us and to discern more clearly where God is leading us together.

This story about the sheep and the goats might tempt some to try to keep score: how many times did I help the needy? How many times did I fail to see Jesus? But Jesus’ teaching is not about keeping score. It’s about character. What sort of people are we becoming? You notice that both groups—both the blessed and the accursed—are surprised by their status. The reason for this is not because it is some sort of secret magical trick meant to keep us on edge. The blessed don’t know because it has become so much of their character to respond with generosity and respect to everyone—particularly those who are hungry or thirsty or alone—that it doesn’t even occur to them to do it any other way. And the accursed, their character becomes so defensive and self-centered, that they are surprised that everybody else doesn’t do it like them. “Oh, I’m sure I fed the hungry somehow—didn’t I have that on my schedule in between my spa treatment and foreclosing on those mortgages?”

When the habits of Jesus’ love for us become the habits of our hearts, we are indeed blessed. When we actually look and see what others need, and offer them in generosity that cup of cool water, or that helping hand, it builds us up inside. Our reverence for God’s people builds reverence for God, and it is in God that we live in joy.

As St. Paul said in the Epistle to the Ephesians today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you…

May we all rejoice as we live in the power of the humility of Christ our King.

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So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

A Great Multitude


A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we observe the feast of All Saints with the baptism of two new saints. In popular parlance, the term “saint” refers to some sort of religious superhero. But that’s not how the Scriptures describe the saints, and I think it is a mistake when the church looks at its saints that way. The word “saint” means holy—that’s its entire meaning both in Latin and Greek. A person is holy because they belong to God—and our reading from the book of Revelation shows a throng of saints, the holy people of God, more than anyone can count—all kinds of people, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages—every sort and category of person: all holy and blessed and beloved of God.

The saints we remember are ordinary people, in whose lives some memorable things happened that illustrate the Christian life. Martyrs are ordinary Christians, who in the course of doing what Christians do, had a really bad day.

“They have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white.” “A great multitude that no one could count…”

The image of the people of God—all of them holy, all of them saints. We here are among saints, people blessed and loved by God. We heard it from George last week—of being enfolded and nourished by the love of God in this place by the Body of Christ, which is to say: You.

This week I heard from a friend whose birthday happens to be on November 1, All Saints Day.  Thirty-seven years ago, I met him and his wife Ruth and their two eldest daughters when we were next-door neighbors during my last year of seminary. Sebastian wrote to say that Ruth died of cancer last month.

Ruth Bakare

Sebastian and Ruth spent their lives serving the church and people of Zimbabwe, courageously standing for justice and the poor. Ruth was president of the Mothers’ Union, and undertook projects for the education and wellness of girls and women in places where those things were hard to come by. Sebastian was Bishop of Manicaland and Acting Bishop of Harare, speaking for the church in a time of great conflict in his country. He told me that one time, while preparing the Eucharist at All Saints Cathedral in Harare, he went to the altar rail and said to riot police that had lined up there, “I am in your hands.” They walked away, and the congregation celebrated the Supper of the Lord.

We never know what will next occur in our Christian life, and in Sebastian and Ruth, I have known friends who calmly and confidently lived in God’s compassion, whatever came. Living a life of generosity and caring for others gave them joy, a joy Sebastian continues to share with his three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. We gather with them in Thanksgiving for God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and known in the love of all God’s Saints.

There are stories like this in our own community. In our church and in our towns, the saints who have been among us and who continue still. The wonderful thing about this time of discernment at Calvary is that now is the time we can pause and listen to those stories.

This morning, Flynn and Grant are presented for baptism into this Body of Christ.  They are our youngest saints, incorporated into the witness of Christ. They are loved by God, more than any of us here love them—even more than their mothers and fathers love them—and I say that, having seen how precious these two children are to Sarah and Andre and to Kate and Frank. God loves each of us more than we can love ourselves. In a few minutes, we will join in committing to support Grant, Flynn, their parents and godparents in seeing that they are brought up in the Christian faith and life, in renouncing the forces of evil in this world, in affirming and holding the faith of the church, serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In other words, as a Christian community we are accountable to God and to one another for living and growing together. We are accountable to Grant and Flynn for being the community in which God’s love is concrete in our time and place. Flynn and Grant will likely live to see the end of the twenty-first century and the church will still be here, witnessing to the love of Christ, not because we are smart or efficient, but because God continues to love God’s people. There is no doubt that life will continue to be complex, that there will be doubts and discouragements. There is no saint that does not have doubts and discouragements—the wonderful thing about the saints is that they are real people, living in our real challenging and complex world.

With all the saints, we celebrate the God of Life—God who is the beginning and the end is not about death, but about life that is not stopped or defeated by those powers of evil and hurt that distract us. When we see and know and remember the saints, they affirm life and do not fear the powers that bring death. As my friend Sebastian said, “I am in your hands.”

We join with all the saints in the feast of life—if anyone is discouraged, or fearful, or confused, rejoice—that shows that you are a real person like the real saints. Rejoice that we have life to give, and we can live it for the new Christians in our midst—our love and accountability to Grant and Flynn is a gift from God, both the sign and the medium of our inclusion in the Resurrection of Christ.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the One who is seated on the Throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.