Month: February 2018

Your Name shall be Abraham

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the call of Abraham. At least parts of it.  And the Epistle is St. Paul’s interpretation and application of that story in his letter to the church at Rome. Abraham lived at least as far before the time of St. Paul as our own time is after Paul’s. In fact there are no marker events, rulers or cultures that locate Abraham in history. If scholars estimate when he might have lived, it is usually some time around 2500 years before the birth of Jesus.

What was read today is only a small bit of the story of Abraham. In all it’s a very complex story that has within it the roots and indeed, most of the content of the identity and values of Israel: the Israel that came out of Egypt with Moses, the Israel of David the King, the Israel that went into exile in Babylon and returned.

The story of the covenant with Abraham is the story of God’s people. It’s more complex than our readings this morning. It would take a very long class indeed to explore the story and its implications fully. The reading from Romans makes it clear that Abraham’s story is our story as well. This is a story in which Abram and Sarai receive new names, Abraham and Sarah, and a new identity—they are God’s people destined to become a nation of God’s people. St. Paul interprets it this way:

[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.

Abraham recognized in God’s promise who he was and what he would become. And we can recognize in Jesus who we are, and what we can become.

A couple of weeks ago, when I preached on the Transfiguration, I mentioned today’s gospel lesson.  Mark’s Gospel is so concise and all its parts fit closely together. It is not just Mark’s Gospel where everything is connected, it’s our Christian faith. What we believe is not just a bunch of random stories telling us to be nice—Christian faith is a way of life which makes our world coherent, in which the values of compassion, sacrifice, generosity, welcome and justice grow out of what God has done in Jesus Christ. What we believe and what we do are one. Mystical prayer and caring for the least of God’s children are the same action. So in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to us:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.

At this point in the gospel, Jesus is about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem. The reference to the cross is clear: Jesus will give up his life for his followers, for us. Jesus is challenging us to live for the good of others and to be willing to incur real loss and face those things we fear in doing so.

It’s common for people to try to dodge the impact of what Jesus is saying either by over-dramatizing what it means—so that it only refers to heroic situations of being literally killed for a very narrow set of reasons—or by minimizing his demand and reducing it to an inner disposition or belief with no consequences in the real world. “Take up your cross” is an invitation to life. Abraham was invited by God to leave home and become something more than himself. He had to give up one name and take on a new identity—and not for himself but for a people created and guided by God. There were many consequences of that covenant with God, and developing into the people of God involved danger and discomfort and doing things that did not directly benefit Abraham. That faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness was life for others, life for God—the foundation of good and life that is beyond human calculation or self-interest.

As Christians, our identity is as Jesus’ followers, as the people of God who travel along with him. We live in his love, the caring and tender love of God. But Jesus makes clear that the only way that that can be done is by living truthfully—a life for others. To have our life—a life of vitality and abundance, a life where the present and the future are filled with value, and to build a loving community, a life of confident faithfulness that will hold us eternally in the presence of God—to have that life means being prepared to lose all those things we mistake for life and try to hold on to. First of all fear: fear of losing things, fear of being found out, fear of not being loved, or fear of other people who might be difficult for us to love. But also the image of ourselves that we hang onto, the image of the things it takes to make people respect or love us, the things we hold onto because we confuse them with life. Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to fear losing that life, because abundant life is from generosity and faithfulness, from living for others, not clinging to things we might lose.

Jesus continued to Jerusalem, living abundantly, healing and freeing people along the way. The consequence in this world was his death on that cross—the fears and selfishness of this world could not abide it. But the consequence also was that God raised him from the dead—the powers of fear, or sin, or selfishness, or death had no power over him. God is faithful, faithful to Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul and to each of us. Our journey with Jesus is a journey into life—life of welcome, of generous community, of living in the Resurrection.

Traditionally, Lent is a time to give up things. But what we give up is not what our hearts’ desire. What we give up is death. Living generously with the good of other people in this world as our aim brings the life that is our heart’s desire, our identity in God.

Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;

All you of Jacob’s line give glory.

For he does not despise the poor in their poverty;

Neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly;

I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied and those who seek the Lord shall praise him:

“May your heart live for ever!”

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,

And all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

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The time is fulfilled…Repent

A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and in the other two years, the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the temptations of Jesus from Matthew or Luke. This year we have the Gospel of Mark and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness go past so quickly that you hardly notice them. Rather than going into the depth of the experience of the temptations and the values and message of Jesus within them, Mark shows how these things are connected together—Jesus coming from Galilee, his Baptism by John, the heavenly voice confirming Jesus as the son of God, the temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God. In seven verses Mark sweeps through all these things and shows how they are connected.

They are connected as the essential background of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was the context for Jesus’ appearance. It was John’s arrest by the soldiers of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, that was the occasion of the beginning of Jesus proclaiming of the Good News. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells the story of the why and how of John’s arrest and execution. This Herod was corrupt, cruel and selfish.  Though he was a Jewish ruler of a Jewish principality, he was the client of a foreign power. John had pointed out his sexual immoralities and, more importantly, how he was unfaithful to his people, acting against the best interest of the people of Galilee and Judea. This was entwined with John’s preaching to the crowds about their repentance. It was not just the leaders who had to be held accountable to God, but everyone. Repentance was necessary—not feeling bad, but changing their lives; choosing each day to live in God’s justice. That was the messenger, preparing the Lord’s way, crying in the wilderness. And Jesus was in the wilderness, being formed in truth and served by angels.

John was taken into custody by the soldiers of Herod Antipas. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the good news.” It is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin that journey with Jesus, the journey which ends with his arrest by the religious police and the Roman soldiers; his execution on Calvary. His message to the people in Galilee is the same as John’s was, down by the Jordan on the eastern edge of Judea: Repent, the Kingdom of God is here. What is that Kingdom? We know some of it: Jesus was a healer, he cast out demons, he taught people hope, character, and faithfulness. He embodied God’s mercy and that was his teaching. Entering the Kingdom of the most merciful God is easy—you just rejoice in God’s mercy, live as God’s merciful children.

Of course, to be God’s merciful children… To even think about being joined to God’s mercy… If you look around at what happened this week down in Florida, what happens every day in our country, even here… To claim to have anything to do with God’s mercy takes change, it takes repentance: a restructuring of ourselves and the way we operate…getting our priorities right. The safety and well-being of young people has to be a higher priority than things of this world: prosperity or success or making political points; or having the things we want. It takes courage to repent, because it means living in a new way. Repentance is the opposite of taking refuge in a world of fear and anger and blame. The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the self-indulgent world of Herod Antipas, but the generous world of Jesus, who brought life and hope to others and didn’t avoid the very real risk to his own person. All through this coming season of Lent, we will see that Jesus’ loving actions, his teaching and his prayers all lined up in perfect accord. For our prayers or our thoughts to have any meaning, they must align with our repentance, and amendment of life. That is to say prayers and action are one. If a person thinks that they can toss in some prayers to make others feel better while planning or doing actions that contradict those prayers, that is blasphemy.

So we look at all the gun violence in this country, punctuated by mass shootings of children and an epidemic of gun suicides. It can look hopeless, practically and politically. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was another epidemic that everybody thought was hopeless: automobile fatalities. It had reached the rate of five and a half fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Now it is just over 1 per 100 million miles. There are actually more than 15 thousand fewer traffic fatalities this year than 50 years ago while the country’s population is more than 50% larger. How did this happen? What caused the reduction of this epidemic? It wasn’t one simple solution, and it took years. A national commitment was made to reduce traffic fatalities. Different things were done: roadways and guard rails were improved, seatbelts and eventually airbags were required in cars. Cars were made structurally safer. Laws against drunk driving were toughened and enforced more stringently. Laws were changed, and some people didn’t like them.

When I was 14 in 1968, I got my driver’s license in Idaho. We were very proud of that and thought it was our God-given right.  Of course, I got in two accidents before I was 16. The age for driving was raised in states like Idaho, much to the consternation of teenagers, and some parents who found it convenient to have the kids drive themselves and do errands.  It took a lot of changes to reduce traffic fatalities. They are not entirely eliminated and still a tragedy when they occur, but they are no longer an increasing epidemic, we don’t assume that somebody we know will be killed in a car crash.

To address gun violence takes national repentance and a national priority for safety, for less gun violence. It requires good faith in looking for solutions from all parties, it takes some inconvenience and adjusting of expectations, and an orientation toward safety in all respects of gun ownership, handling and use. Guns can be made safer, and particularly dangerous weapons can be gradually eliminated. They aren’t needed any more than a .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket launcher. Guns are tools and our culture should develop in the direction of not having them be tools for killing people, least of all, high school students and teachers.

Immediately after his baptism the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He was tended by the angels of God. He came to his home country of Galilee calling for repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He went among them, casting out demons and healing them.

Wash your face…

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.

Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.

Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us.  What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.

But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.

Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature?  This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.

Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.

The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.  The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.

And after six days

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, February 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John and privately leads them up alone to a high mountain.

That’s the first verse of today’s Gospel in a new translation that I’ve been using in my study and sermon preparation.  David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament emphasizes the individual voices and oddities of the books of the Greek New Testament rather than conforming them to the smooth formal flow of the translations that we use in the liturgy.  And, of course, our lectionary sometimes smooths out the text even more. The reading leaves out the first phrase of the first verse: “And after six days.”

I always find the story of the Transfiguration difficult to get a handle on as a preacher. It doesn’t have the moral, theological or historical content that most of the passages that come up for sermons contain. Shiny Jesus, two prophets and a cloud just doesn’t ring a bell for me—what’s it connected to? What sense does it make?

For me that transition phrase, “And after six days,” provides a clue. The Gospel of Mark almost always marks transitions with the word that means “immediately,” so this is unusual. It was the amount of time that Moses and Joshua spent under the cloud on the top of Mount Sinai, waiting for the tablets of the law.

But why this pause? What does it mark? Flip the page of your New Testament back one and the event that happened immediately before this is the most serious conflict between Jesus and his disciples in the Gospels. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered that he was the Messiah. But then Jesus began to explain what that meant: suffering, rejection, being killed and rising in three days. Peter kind of freaked out, took him aside and rebuked Jesus. Jesus’ response was: “Get behind me Satan!” Not exactly the response that Peter was hoping for. Jesus then said to the whole crowd, as well as his disciples,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Then, after waiting six days, he takes the inner circle of his disciples privately to the top of the mountain. Jesus, shining with the glory of God, accompanied by the two most significant of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. The conflict with the disciples had been about his suffering and death. They weren’t understanding. It’s not made explicit here, but there is something that Peter ignored when he decided to rebuke Jesus. What Jesus had said was that he would be “rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed … and after three days rise again.”

Violence and dying are familiar to us and easy to digest, but what about resurrection? Is that just wishful thinking? Is it just a placeholder, do we just ignore it? Jesus took these three disciples, the first ones he called, to show them something different, a new and different life, triumphant and in the presence of God—yet inextricably linked with those things that these disciples were afraid to face—rejection, suffering, death. To share this Gospel, they must know both sides. And notice, when Peter sticks in his suggestion about building something, it is because they are afraid here too—the reality of God’s goodness and presence can be as frightening as suffering and death. Life takes courage, especially life in Christ’s resurrection.

Then the cloud came upon them, just as it had for Moses, just as it had at Jesus baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The Resurrection of Jesus is here in the center of the Gospel of Mark—we don’t separate his active life of healing, his rejection and suffering, or his teaching of the Kingdom of God from God’s conquering death and raising him from the dead. Knowing the resurrection puts the rest into perspective. The disciples may still fear, have doubts, worry and forget, but they have seen Jesus manifesting God’s glory with Moses and Elijah, they have seen that the truth is Jesus facing death, not in avoiding it or shying away from the difficulties of rejection or disapproval.

Tuesday night, we will have a grand celebration with pancakes and then on Wednesday, we begin our journey of Lent. Lent is a penitential time, but that does not mean a time of feeling bad and guilty. It’s not a time to be run down and resentful and headachy because of a lack of candy or coffee. The penitential season of Lent is about facing the truth. We are tempted to hide from the truth, because we are fearful—but Jesus shows us the truth: his Transfiguration into the Glory of God, his Resurrection and defeat of death. But that truth is not avoiding the difficulties and hurts of this life, or the realities and limitations we must face as individuals or as a congregation. In today’s epistle, Paul observes that “the god of this age has blinded the thoughts of the faithless, so that the illumination of the good tidings of the glory of Christ—he who is God’s image—should not shine out.” The distractions and temptations of the ways of this world push people to avoid difficulty and thus be blinded to life. Jesus took his disciples up that mountain so that they could see—not avoiding their difficulties, but knowing that abundant life is here, that freedom is in joining him in faithfully accepting and living in the truth.

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Have you not known?

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached about this same chapter of Isaiah, but the earlier part, based on Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.” This beautiful chapter tells of God’s caring and protecting of people, despite the difficulties and dangers we face, and contrary to fearful and idolatrous human solutions.

Today’s lesson talks about the real nature of God. “He who sits above the circle of the earth”—that is to say outside of human experience, transcending the cosmos as we can understand or envision it.  It is naïve of some modern people to think that the prophet thought of God as a man sitting in outer space or physically above the sky.  The disc of the earth was the entire cosmos of people’s experience and imagination for the people of ancient Israel—the stars were on a huge inverted bowl that defined that disc—God is beyond all that they, or we understand, beyond the horizon of our experience or imagination.

That’s in contrast to the idols of our construction and imagination: things that can be manipulated and used for self-serving purposes. Today’s passage follow’s one that discusses idols that are simply made of wood with gold overlay. People are inclined to regard power and wealth as things that will protect them, make their lives better.
But Isaiah observes:

[God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Security via power and wealth is an illusion, or perhaps, more properly, a delusion. It is tempting to think that, if having enough is good, or being confident and strong makes us feel secure, then having more than we need will keep us from ever being in need and having huge power that makes us stronger and more dangerous than others will protect us from ever feeling unsafe. This is something that is abroad in our country today: very popular and very dangerous. It is what Isaiah saw, and what he was called to speak the word of God against: “he brings princes to naught, and the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Though fear tempts us sometimes to follow these delusions, we know that they don’t work.

Last Sunday we gathered together and worked very hard for several hours. Basically, we were listening to one another’s experiences about what had made us feel most alive, most spiritually engaged, most deeply satisfied. What you came up with can be summarized as our experience in this community of being welcomed, accepted, included, and having the opportunity to extend that to others, and to worship God together in that community of welcome, acceptance and inclusion. None of the lasting and permanent values that we shared had to do with holding power, or achieving or keeping great wealth. Whenever there are fears, they are fears of not having enough to continue to welcome and be welcomed, to open ourselves to accept others, to have regular, deep and nourishing common worship of God. The source of our bounty is the God of all creation—none is hidden or exempt from God’s love or God’s justice. The manipulations of the powerful or the privileged will not prevail, indeed they are illusions which will end quickly in embarrassment.

Our Gospel lesson today continues directly after last week’s lesson where Jesus taught in the synagogue and healed the man with the unclean spirit, the one who was fearful that Jesus would destroy them by bringing the truth of God among them. They went from that synagogue to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. He reached out his hand to her, he supported her and the fever left her. She was returned to health, and she did what she was always about, hospitality and welcome, serving the guests in her home. The point of the story is not about magical healing powers that do away with germs, the story continues with Jesus healing the whole town—bringing health and return to healthy, welcoming, accepting and including ways of living. It says that Jesus cast out demons and silenced them—they wanted to say how they knew him, put their own spin on the situation through fear, anger, selfishness, hunger for power, manipulation—but Jesus brought health, welcome, God’s compassion into that town. Then he continued and brought the same: the message of the Kingdom of God, throughout his country of Galilee.

It is the Kingdom of God to which we are called together. Health and fearlessness, not the fear and manipulations of this world. We live in what is permanent and not what is illusion.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.