Month: April 2018

Beloved, since God loved us so much…

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Our lesson today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In America, the thing that most people notice first is that the eunuch is black, coming as he is from sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, that’s not referenced in the text—the description is of a powerful court official of a faraway kingdom, outside of the Roman Empire; a person scholarly and devout, asking hard questions of the scriptural text of the prophet Isaiah.

The issue of race is an American issue, a modern issue, emerging from a concept that arose in European writing in the seventeenth century. I will be away when the vestry has anti-racism training at the end of May – for a happy reason, I want to add – my middle daughter is getting married.  But because I won’t be with you then, I want to share with you in this sermon some of my experiences and reflections on race and racism.

Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. A few years ago, I was asked to be the regular supply priest at a congregation in the south Bronx. We felt very welcomed and included in that congregation. Almost everyone’s family originally had come from the Caribbean. Everyone, except me and Paula, was black.  I learned a lot in my two years with them.

Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary.  As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career.  I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind, and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp: didn’t everyone get a fair and equal chance? About four years ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other, and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. It was one job and a couple of years for my colleagues and myself, but for millions, that is their everyday life.

It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group.  We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult, is to really see racism; the underlying and not-often-thought-about presumption that what is nice, safe and normal is what is white; therefore, what is not white is suspect, unsafe and probably not quite as worthwhile.

What’s problematic about that is the behavior that results: not taking people seriously; expecting less from them; patronizing… Women sometimes experience this sort of thing from men… or so I’ve been told. Everyone at my church in the Bronx had experienced it, including the wealthiest, best educated and most conservative.

To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good – that’s how people survive.

The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.

It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for this guy, meaning me. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.

So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as the Epistle of James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules, but in our relationships and expectations of one another.

What I want is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.

Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity, and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God, and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Calvary Church as well as every congregation to change, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.

Hear again from the First Letter of John:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; … We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

Advertisements

The Model Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real-life shepherd.  He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is easy to think that we have our little parish and it’s like a little sheepfold, where Jesus protects us and we feel welcome and at home and we have Jesus as our very own Good Shepherd and we can just settle down with Jesus and go to sleep. But our Model Shepherd doesn’t run things that way—“I have other sheep” maybe those sheep are a bit different or strange to us and our Shepherd calls us to extend ourselves, our sheepfold, our welcome to them.

If any of us loved being welcomed by this church community, the next, even more important step, is to extend that welcome to someone else, to care for someone else’s joys or triumphs, someone else’s challenges or tragedies. A caring community isn’t just that we have our cares met, but about living that care going forward. And that means caring for someone new, at least new to your personal circle of concern. The sheep from another fold are from the future and the present, not from what used to be or what we’ve been comfortable with.

This is a welcoming parish, we have each been welcomed by the Model Shepherd, and he welcomes new sheep every day, we see them all around us, not just here, but wherever we go. Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us, and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

 

That we should be called the Children of God

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God.

This Easter season, we are privileged to have most of the book of the Bible called First John read in our service. Last week it began, “we have seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands, the Word of Life” and that Word of Life is our Advocate for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world.

This week we move forward. It continues, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are.” In this community, it is clear how important our children are to us: they are our treasure, our life, our future. And not just the little kids, but the ones that are leaving the nest, in college or out working—even our children that have children, or even grandchildren, of their own. The loving parent always wants what is best for those children—not that the children always realize it—and the loving parent will make sacrifices for the sake of a good life for the children. And thus, it says in today’s lesson, that we are indeed God’s children. God cares for us more than anything, and sacrifices for our life, and always wants only what is best for us. God’s love for his children is even more than our own love for our own children.

The lesson continues, “The reason that the World does not know us is that it did not know him.” What is John talking about when he refers to “the World?” The term comes up frequently in 1 John. In the section between the part that was read last week and what was read this morning comes this verse: “all that is in the world—the desire for the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The world is that realm of distraction from the love of God and toward things that we think will make us secure or happy.

Indeed, some who are particularly attached to the world believe that having enough: enough riches, or enough accomplishments, or the admiration of others, will protect them, keep them safe in a way that they need neither the love of their earthly parents nor the love of God. Indeed, there are those who immerse themselves in this world to protect themselves, to hide themselves from the love of the living God, our heavenly Father. They might be successful in building up power or wealth, but in keeping these for themselves, in holding on to the World, they end up hurting others of God’s children.

Attachment to the World is really fear. It is not a celebration of the good that we share in God’s creation. It is the opposite. Like the Israelites, who were given manna to eat for breakfast each day. Some decided that they would play it safe, just in case God didn’t keep his promise the next day. They kept the manna overnight, only to wake up and find that it had decayed into a mess filled with worms. So it is for those who think that the world will protect them, if they hang on to its prosperity and attractions hard enough. They hold on to their own power until it slips away and they miss out on the abundance of abiding in God.

This is not a matter of having a contest to see who can be most perfect, or who can give up power the most. God’s love calls us to a loving and forgiving life in him. When First John talks about righteousness, doing right and being without sin, it is about doing loving things, being people who forgive and love, being people who accept God’s love. It is not about talking about it, or even about having sweet or sad emotions about it. It is about caring for our neighbors, forgiving our friends, our enemies and even our families, and accepting God’s forgiveness of them and us.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

In the Gospel today, Jesus came and appeared to the disciples and shared food with them—he ate fish with them. He said, “Peace be with you,” and then he explained to them that it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It is written indelibly in the world, that the righteous one will necessarily suffer, and we live with him in his suffering, so that we may proclaim that resurrection. His peace is among us that we may live and share in the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all God’s people, to all the children of the Father.

He is among us, and we will see him, raised from the dead and living among us.

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

God will hold us all in his Love

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…

Thus begins the First Epistle of John, written to the church in the region of the world that is now Turkey at around the same time that our Gospels were written. “We declare what was from the beginning…” What beginning does that refer to? It might refer to the organization of that particular church—as in, “here’s what we agreed upon at the start…;” it might mean what it does in the Gospel of John, “the Word was with God in the beginning, and without the Word, there was not anything made that was made…;” or the beginning could refer to the beginning of our new life, the resurrection of Christ: “what was from the beginning, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands … the Word of Life.”

This sentence means all of these things. This week we have entered into Easter, the season of the resurrection of Christ. We can place that event at a moment in time—“we have seen with our eyes, we have looked at and touched with our hands…”—Jesus alive and with us; death defeated. But that resurrection, life conquering death, is implicit there at the beginning, before creation, the God that created the light is in his essence love, and that is the essence of life.

The reading from the Gospel today is the one that is read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Jesus suddenly appears in the locked room with the disciples, the room that was locked because of their fear. Jesus says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Thus, no longer are they to be locked up in their fear—they are to live the life that Jesus lives, sent by the Father. Sent why, for what? “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

There is another sentence that follows, and it contains a serious mistranslation, so serious that it should be explained. One of my teachers, an extraordinary biblical scholar and teacher of spirituality named Sandra Schneiders, gave a detailed lecture on this when I was in seminary. This Greek word, krateo, means “grasp,” “hold on to.” In my big Greek dictionary there is a long entry about krateo and hundreds of examples of its use follow. At the very end of the entry for krateo appears a different definition, that is, “retain,” but it gives only a single example: “retain their sins,” and it’s from this verse that we read today.

So my teacher did further research, and this is the only use of that sense of the word krateo in all of Greek literature. She was pretty skeptical, devoted Catholic nun that she is. Somehow those in authority in the church thought that it was a good idea that if they could forgive sins, they should also be able to keep sins from being forgiven. After all, that gives a lot of power to us priests, and you know that’s what we need, a little more power. But the sentence that Jesus said actually makes sense without making up new meanings for words. Jesus said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you hold fast to anyone, they are held fast (in the custody of God).”

Immediately following is the example of Thomas. Thomas was not there. And Thomas knew that his friends could be sentimental crackpots sometimes. He listens to their story, complete with showing Jesus’ hands and his side and he says, “Yeah. Right.” “I won’t believe until I see his hands and his side, and touch him.” I have always loved Thomas. None of this “go along to get along” for him. His belief had to be real, he wasn’t there to kid around about stuff that people fantasized or hallucinated about. And the disciples disagreed, and they held Thomas fast. In the love of God, Thomas was held with them, he remained with them in the room. And a whole week later Jesus appeared. “Put your finger here and see my hands.”

The resurrection is not about what the disciples thought and felt; it is not about what we think and feel. The resurrection is

(Photo by Frank H. Conlon)

Jesus coming to his people for the sake of his love of the world. It is his welcome and love. His presence here for us, and for all of his people. He stretches out his arms on the cross to embrace the entire world, and to hold them fast. He gives the Holy Spirit to his community to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, and to hold his people tight in his love.  In January the people of Calvary met together and shared what is vitally important in our experience together here. The words that consistently came out from all the groups, from you, were “Welcome” and “Acceptance”—that this is a place where we have known that, that being accepted as we are and welcomed as part of the community is something that we have experienced. In other words, this is a community that holds one another fast, accepts and welcomes people, not because of affinity or agreement about things, but because that’s who we are—that’s who God is calling us to be.

The reading from the epistle today ends: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The whole world. God calls us to bring his forgiveness, his peace that drives out fear, to the entire world. Embrace all those who love you, and those who don’t. We start here, and then we are sent. In the openness of Christ, bring his love out into our world.

God will hold us all in his love.