Month: March 2018

I shall not die, but Live and Declare the Works of the Lord

A sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.

Today is the day of the Resurrection. We celebrate that God has raised Jesus, the Lord of Life, from the dead.  In Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated, and it is established that the real truth and essence of this world is life—life eternal and life present.

We live in a world where many focus on death. Some even believe that death is the real and final reality, while others use the threat or fear of death to gain power and use it over others. The Gospel is not happy talk or wishful thinking. Our observance of Holy Week, in preparation for this day of the Resurrection, bears witness to the reality and power of death and its servants—violence and fear. The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate assertion of the arrogance of death in this world, and of how people join themselves to it. As Christians we take death very seriously.

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” The three women had prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body, because the circumstances of his death had made it impossible to do so before the Sabbath. They were doing what they could to honor him and cope with his devastating death. But the body is not there, but rather a young man, dressed in a white robe, an unusual form of dress, which elsewhere in the New Testament is how the martyrs and the newly baptized are dressed, and he says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here…he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The God of life has raised him from the dead, the powers of death have no hold of him. Have courage, you will see him and he will lead you into life.

St. Paul said it to the church in Rome in the epistle we read today: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus always lived in the fullness of life, never fearing the forces of death. We are often fearful. Even at the end of the Gospel of Mark, the women fled in terror and spoke to no one, because they were afraid. But our loving and indulgent God, looks at them with mercy—No. Don’t be afraid, go where Jesus calls you, to Galilee, perhaps, and live life with him, don’t be enslaved by the forces of death.

“The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” It takes courage to live life rather than being seduced and intimidated by the forces of death. It is seductive to think that we can protect ourselves or our families by being armed, or behind gates, or to somehow compile enough wealth so that we don’t have to deal with other people—especially THOSE other people. The forces of death use fear to push people apart, increase anger and anxiety. The forces of death tell us never to be vulnerable or to trust…people follow that counsel, and life is impoverished, and our country is torn apart.  The hope of abundant life for everyone in our world is traded in for impoverished pursuit of plentiful wealth for me and mine—bought by servitude to those who seek and hold power who represent the powers of death.

It may be that some will dismiss this—“How could we change? We can’t afford to do anything but go along and get along. We have to keep ourselves safe.” Jesus could not afford anything and did not keep himself safe, yet he is the one who is alive. I have lived a while in the grown-up world, and I have seen plenty of fear, and plenty of people accommodating to power, and seeking to ingratiate themselves to the powerful.  I’ve seen institutions collapse through pursuing the fantasy that the rich and powerful will save them rather than having the courage to pursue their life-giving mission.

The Resurrection is confusing and hard to understand. It has always been so: the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances tell us that the people who saw Jesus often didn’t recognize him, or were fearful or confused. So it is not a problem of being “modern” that makes the resurrection a challenge, it is a problem of fear and being confused by the power of death around us. If we are fearful, we are in good company, but we are called to leave aside the noise of the powers of death and turn to reality, the reality of life in God.

The resurrection of Christ is the only hard-headed, real-world reality that there is. For the truth underlying our universe, if there is any truth or meaning worth having—the truth is that life is what endures, life is what has meaning. The God who raised Jesus, did so in the midst of tough economic, social, and political circumstances.  Jesus did not ignore those circumstances, but confronted them, well aware of what would happen. He was the only one on any side who was realistic about that. He chose to affirm life, and death did what it could, it did what it does—death ended Jesus’ earthly life—yet God raised Jesus from the dead. That is far more realistic than self-pity or fearfulness. Jesus met the disciples in Galilee, where he preached the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, fed the hungry, cast out demons and the forces of death. The Christians proclaimed that. Paul, whose writings are the earliest of the New Testament said it thus:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never, die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Christ is risen, the God of Life has raised him and blessed us as he has from the beginning. Our praises join with the praises of Israel; let us conclude in prayer in the words of our psalm of Israel:

The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.

There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous.

The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!

The right hand of the Lord is exalted!

The right hand of the Lord has triumphed!”

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.

I give thanks to you, for you answered me and have become my salvation.

The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

On this day the Lord has acted;

We will rejoice and be glad in it.

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taking the form of a slave

Homily for Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

This is a lot. What has happened this morning requires no sermon. Let’s just take a moment to take it in.

The crowd with the palms and the crowd shouting at the trial are the same crowd.

We are inclined to be just like Peter, who was, after all, the first and foremost leader of the church and our model. He thought he could be strong enough to be with Jesus through it all: “Even though all become deserters, I will not.”  But we cannot exceed his faithfulness, or even stay awake.

The crowds condemned Jesus, yet we are no different, subject to the same anger, hysteria and blame. God’s love is for us even when we are in this crowd. Ultimately Jesus’ firmness in his love is what provoked the crowd but still his love continued to the end.

…[he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You look for Truth deep within me

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

I love our psalm for today.  Psalm 51 is one of the most powerful and beautiful of the songs of Israel. Its text is the basis for some of the most beautiful Christian Music that I know. The reason for that, is that it speaks beautifully of God’s loving-kindness, the harmony of God’s compassion and life-giving spirit. It is classified among the Penitential Psalms and indeed that is what it is, a psalm of penitence par excellence.

But penitence and repentance are often not well understood. When it says, “wash me through and through from my wickedness,” we are tempted to think that it only refers to being particularly awful and that we somehow should find really bad things to think and say of ourselves. But that’s not it at all. Our text for today, from the middle of this psalm, describes it best: “For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” Deep within us, all of us, is the truth, and that truth is deep wisdom. But that is also our deepest secret, because inside is also where our hurts, and fears, and confusions dwell. We are vulnerable—if the wrong people found out those deep secrets we could be damaged, damaged terribly, even destroyed. And thus, many people avoid the truth within themselves entirely, and in closing themselves off from the truth of their sinfulness, transgressions and fears, they also close themselves off from the wisdom of God, from the source of life—sometimes even from life itself.

All of us are subject to this, to one degree or another, because all of us are fearful and everyone at some point wants to hide, at least to hide something or to hide from someone. I have seen when someone insists that they have nothing hidden, that they have never committed a sin, have never needed to ask God or anyone else for forgiveness. A psychologist would tell you that such a person is a psychopath. A person that fears that at the core of their being is nothing, or at least nothing that could be loved. Such people trust no one, and ultimately, others learn not to trust them.

But God searches for truth deep within us. God can be trusted to find the blessing of our spirit. God’s loving-kindness and mercy touches us where we are most vulnerable and tender. Even when no other human being could be trusted with our secrets—fears, sins, misdeeds, unrealistic aspirations, embarrassing quirks—God can be trusted. In amongst all our vulnerabilities the love of God searches out and finds that beautiful creature who God created.  God calls forth our bountiful spirit in the joy of his saving help.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And how does he say he is glorified? He says it is like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying—that in giving up being a single piece of grain that the bounty of a new harvest appears. We are called to penitence, precisely for the bounty of new life, to allow God to search us inwardly, to acknowledge and accept that we need mercy, that we need to trust God. We need to give up protecting all the things that are hiding that spirit which God seeks to reveal in us.

Not every person can be trusted with our inmost vulnerability. Sometimes people betray one another, sometimes people don’t understand, or they just gossip. Being free from those things that we have hidden doesn’t mean regarding all our sins as meaningless or trivial. Penitence is acknowledging the truth to God, of giving up the fearful things we cling to in order to avoid the real danger of being a free person in God, that is to say, a Christian as Jesus is calling us to be.

This is a journey we don’t take alone, however.  We are in a community that is travelling with Jesus along the road to Calvary, along the road to his Resurrection and ours. It doesn’t have to be abstract or strictly internal—most of us do discover others who we can trust to share at least some of the difficulties of our journey. Certainly, those who benefit from the many AA groups that meet here every week day would tell you how important it is to them. Some things need to be sorted out in an even more secure and safe way. That’s why the church provides the sacrament of Reconciliation. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can find it beginning on page 446 in the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church doesn’t treat this as a duty for everyone. But it is an opportunity to sort out and give over to the God of all mercy those things that might get in the way of our abundant and joyful life. Priests are trained that the confidentiality of this sacrament is beyond ordinary confidentiality. It is sealed in the trust of God’s transforming mercy.  I’m pleased to schedule the sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who contacts me, and there are plenty of other priests who are happy to do so as well. It is God that is merciful, all the time. If is a privilege to help someone recognize it and know it.

Let us pray:

For behold, you look for truth deep within me,

and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness,

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out my iniquities

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of your saving help again

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

 

That the World might be Saved through Him

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

As we journey through Lent, we are recalling that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good-looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.

The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world—that the whole world is saved by him.

The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed, the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth.

The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare with Calvary Church’s St. Patrick’s Day potluck next Saturday—where we share with one another as in God’s heavenly banquet.

Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, “Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee-deep in snakes.

Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.

And that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.

We are invited to live in the light of Jesus—by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful and leaving self-pity behind. We are called to proclaim God’s love for the entire world, to live together as a body building one another up, not as individuals competing against others for a reward they can’t have.

He sent for his word and healed them; and saved them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy;

and the wonders he does for his children.

Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving;

And tell of his acts with shouts of joy.