Month: January 2018

With Authority, and he Commands the Unclean Spirits and they Obey…

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Today is a special day of discernment for Calvary which will finish with our Annual Parish Meeting. 2017 was a year of transition for Calvary. Father Harry Mazujian left as Rector at the end of February. Mother Ann Holt and Deacon Jack Hain stepped in with outstanding liturgical and pastoral leadership. The people of Calvary took responsibility for the activities and programs of the church with the faithful and diligent leadership of our Wardens, Jean Good and Karen Sammer. Karen Sammer and Doug Reagan organized the discernment team, which has put in an incredible amount of work in preparing Calvary’s profile and vision for a new rector. Jennifer Poruczynski has been marvelous in staffing Calvary’s ministries as our diligent and reliable administrator. We have also been blessed by the work of the Way of St. Paul team, Bob Violette and the wonderful choir, our youth, the Tuesdays at Ten Group, the Shepherds who visit the sick and shut-in, and parishioners who organized new initiatives this year, including being a part of the Flemington community’s Halloween observance and Christmas parade.

Thank you to all, and thank you to all our members and friends who support one another and what we mean to God’s people.

I came to Calvary in September because working with churches in transition is what I do. What I love about this work is that transition is a time of change, a time when we can recognize what is vitally important and what can just … change. An important part of our time together today is appreciating together how important what happens at Calvary really is. Our mutual support and witness, and living God’s love for the world together make a real difference for that world, especially here in this community of Flemington and Hunterdon County. Calvary is a resilient community and as this congregation goes through the changes of this transitional time together, it is becoming stronger and more focused on what is truly meaningful.

Becoming whole is what our Gospel lesson is about today. It’s important to remember that Jesus was a healer. We often think of him as a teacher and preacher, which can make us miss how important healing was to him. What he did was to heal and cast out demons, far more than even teaching and preaching.  We see this here in the Gospel of Mark. It starts with John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and then Jesus comes to Galilee and gathers his disciples.  And then this story, the first time that Jesus is teaching a congregation.

What’s of note in our Gospel lesson today, is that though we are told that Jesus is teaching or preaching, what is it that he’s really doing? He’s healing.

We don’t actually hear the content of Jesus’ teaching here, but we are told about his hearers’ reaction. The congregation at that synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, were astonished. This was something new. This is what they said: “What is this? A new teaching, with authority, and he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” And that was the foundation of his ministry.

Today, we will have time to think about our focus and what is it we want as our foundation for our ministry at Calvary and in our community. We’ll each have time to talk and we’ll each have time to listen. It will be a time of reflection and a time of fellowship.

Please take a few moments in silence, to reflect along with me:

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is welcomed into a place where God’s love shines and lives are nurtured and transformed in Christ…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is valued as a unique Child of God and empowered to offer their gifts to the benefit of the congregation and the community at large…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is inspired to live their dreams of making a better world in which Christ’s peace, justice, and love is available to all…

Our imagination is based on remembering things we have seen and experienced, what we know is possible and is real. As our Psalm for today says:

God’s work is full of majesty and splendor,

And his righteousness endure for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him;

He is ever mindful of his covenant.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;

All his commandments are sure.

 

Come, let us remember who we are, and whose we are, and imagine what we can become as the People of God…

After this Holy Eucharist we will gather in the parish hall, and work together on remembering Calvary Church as the people of God.

 

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Repent, and Believe in the Good News

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God’s coming near, of the healing and hope for the world. And the first thing he does when he gets there is to call the apostles. Jesus came to Peter, Andrew, James and John and said, “Follow me.” So they followed, and it all seems pretty simple and straightforward. Not much to it, really. Stop sweating, working with the nets, for hardly any return, and go out and chat with people. Of course, thinking of it this way leaves out the rest of the Gospel.

So let’s turn to our Old Testament lesson today, from the book of Jonah. When you read today’s passage, it sounds like God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh and preach and everybody repented and things were good—God calls, the prophet answers the call and things work out.

The problem is, that this is exactly NOT what the book of Jonah is about. This bit is from the middle of the story, while both the beginning and the end of the story give a very different view. The story actually goes like this: God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah’s immediate response was to head in the other direction. Instead of going across the desert to Iraq, Jonah got on a boat headed to Turkey, or maybe Italy, perhaps New York. This is where the whale comes in. God was not amused by Jonah’s response, and sent a big storm, and the crew of the boat threw him overboard to keep the boat from sinking.

It worked and a big fish or whale swallowed Jonah and spewed him out back on the beach where he started. That’s where we get today’s lesson. God says it again, and Jonah trudges off to Nineveh, and walks into the huge city, and tells everyone to repent, and they take him seriously, and do it.

Fine. Except that’s not the end of the story. Jonah is very unhappy with this outcome. He had expectations. He had said that in forty days Nineveh was going to be overthrown, and that’s what he wanted to see. And if God was going to change the deal, Jonah was just going to go off and sulk. Jonah wants to die, because God is merciful to the people he wants to punish. Jonah wants God to do what he wants him to do, and be the way that Jonah thinks God should be, which oddly enough, is just like Jonah.

God, however, is a living God, who does not resemble Jonah, or me, or even you. God’s love is beyond our understanding—deeper and wider than our imagination can take in. So, God calls his people, he calls his prophets, his apostles, his priests, his witnesses to the truth, mothers and fathers and children—and we think we understand that call. Peter and Andrew and James and John thought they understood when Jesus said, “Follow me.” Perhaps they even believed they knew what it meant to become fishers of people. But responding to the call to follow Jesus works out differently than we expect, at least the first twenty or thirty times we start out. Jonah actually had a pretty good idea of what God wanted, and that’s why he took off in the opposite direction. It was not going to work out that his enemies were going to be punished and Jonah’s angry fantasy satisfied.

Not everyone’s fantasies are angry, like Jonah’s. Many times in my life, my fantasies have been more grandiose and self-centered than angry. As individuals and as a church, we have ideas and expectations that are sometimes visions of God’s kingdom and sometimes fantasies to make ourselves comfortable. God’s call to us is in the real world, and it leads us in ways that we often don’t expect. Jonah found that God’s mercy abounds, even beyond our own regions of comfort. Those first disciples also discovered the abundance of God’s mercy—it took time for them to understand that that mercy called them to go with Jesus into places that challenged them more than they imagined.

Jesus brings us good news, THE Good News that God is here with us. That God’s mercy and compassion are right here, in this place for all of us; for every one of God’s children without any need to pass a special test, or have special skills or achievements. God loves you and welcomes you. Jesus calls each of us, like he did his apostles. Like God called Jonah. The Good News, of course, is also for that other person, the one who might make somebody uncomfortable, the ones that Jonah ran away from. We think we know that they won’t accept the Good News, or at least not respond to God’s call with appropriate repentance.  Sometimes we are just like Jonah that way. And what does our lesson today say?

Jonah cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jesus’ apostles, in their journeys with Jesus, also had similar experiences, with the outcasts and lepers, the Samaritans and the Gentiles, with many who they assumed would reject the Gospel, or who God healed and transformed before they believed.

We have God’s mercy, God’s Kingdom, right here among us. The challenge is to accept and live in that love—to follow the call of Jesus and to see where else he bestows that Good News.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

You shall invite each other to come under your Vine and Fig Tree

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!”

And Nathanael’s response was “… and that would be who?” And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county with about as much land area as New Jersey, near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.

Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to just take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.

Philip says, “Come and see.”

One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well-known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.

When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears it sounds like Jesus saw Nathanael standing in the shade. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.

Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts,

and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” The image of being under your own vine and fig tree is one of restoration of a tranquil and prosperous life, a life of peace and hope. The vision of hope for Nathanael and God’s people.

Our psalm for today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”

Jesus knew. He knew that Nathanael longed for the Kingdom of God, he longed for that time when everyone would share hospitality under his own vine and fig tree. Nathanael, the Israelite with no deceit turns to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be.  We are known by God, our lives and our hopes are knit together by God. But, in Jesus, those hopes aren’t just any fantasy we might have, nor do difficulties and distractions just fade away.  Nathan says to Jesus that he is “the King of Israel.” And that would be how he envisioned the Messiah’s coming. Jesus knew Nathanael, and loved him, and invited him to follow. But that following was not to indulge what Nathanael imagined he wanted or was going to get, but the reality of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus’ road, not just to Galilee to preach and teach, but to Jerusalem, to face and defeat the powers of death. “You will see greater things than these, Nathanael, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This weekend we remember a man who Jesus knew and invited to follow him. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. It was never easy, and the outcomes of standing up for justice and fairness were never unambiguous.  Much of what Dr. King hoped for has not been realized in the way that he wished, and certainly not as soon as he wished. Racism is still common in our country and comes to the surface in disturbing ways, even for those of us who might be more likely to be beneficiaries of the effects of racism, rather than to suffer. Dr. King’s witness, of standing for a society of respect and dignity for every person, shows us a way to move forward, practically in our society, even though the road is hard, and with many delays and surprising challenges.

At Calvary Church, we live in the Gospel of Jesus. He knows us as he knows Nathanael. He invites us to follow him, to follow him on the way. And like Nathanael, we will be surprised. We might have envisioned one outcome, but the Vine and Fig Tree that comprise God’s mercy for us, will be different. Much more abundant, with deeper joy, and much more challenging.

As it says in our psalm: “You press upon me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … You yourself created my inmost part; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.”

And then Jesus said:

“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”