Month: July 2018

The Fool has said in his heart

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The fool has said in his heart, “there is no God.”

Usually when people hear this line from Psalm 14, they think that it is about whether someone thinks God exists or not. That somehow it’s a question of philosophy and that the resolution of the argument over the fact of God’s existence will resolve all the other problems. But that’s not what this psalm is about at all. The existence of YHWH, the God of Israel, was for Israel an unquestioned fact. There was no intellectual argument about that—God was the definition of the community of Israel. Without God they had no identity or existence.

If we look at the next line, we can get an idea of what is going on: “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none that does any good.”

The psalmist is referring to fools who behave as if the living God does not exist; as if the bonds of the love of God binding the community together don’t exist or matter at all.  The fool forgets about God.

Our Old Testament Lesson today is the famous story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. David was a great leader, a great warrior who was anointed as king, seized the kingdom from Saul and consolidated the twelve tribes of Israel into one effective kingdom. He is remembered not only as a great warrior, but also for his beauty, his ability as a singer, and he is credited by tradition as the author of the Psalms. The story takes place in the spring, and the text reminds us that that is the traditional time for kings to go out and fight their wars. Why have wars at all? Why not use the spring to plant crops and take the flocks to fresh green pastures? Well that would be one alternative, wouldn’t it? But with ancient military technology and logistics, you couldn’t successfully send armies into the field in the winter. The environment would do in your army without any input from the enemy. We hear the same about combat in Afghanistan to this day. What I actually find a little puzzling is why the warrior king sent someone else to lead his army in this war. Somehow, this time was different, or perhaps he was different now.

So, Joab was leading the army out in the field, and David was lounging in his cedar house in Jerusalem. David gets up and goes up to the roof to look around in the late afternoon. He sees a woman bathing, a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, Uriah the Hittite, who was away at the war. He sends for her and has sex with her and the next thing you know, she’s pregnant. To cover up his affair, David has Uriah recalled from the battlefield and encourages him to go home to his wife.

But Uriah won’t go home, he stays at the king’s palace, because as far as he’s concerned, he’s still on duty.  Uriah’s mission was to support his colleagues who were in harm’s way in the conflict with the Ammonites—he wasn’t going to take time off while that was going on.

That puts David in a bind. If Uriah would not spend time with his beautiful wife, the illicit nature of the pregnancy would be obvious and David’s adultery would be revealed.

Let’s think about this for a moment. David was a man of great power and wealth. He had important responsibilities. Most regarded him as courageous. Yet at this point he abandoned his responsibilities to his people, responsibilities entrusted to him by God, responsibilities that extended far beyond himself. If you look at the whole of the story told in the books of Samuel, David was not the passive recipient of these responsibilities, he sought them out, even fought for them. The responsibility and stewardship of his country’s well-being was something he freely accepted. And now, he acted corruptly, simply to satisfy his own desires he coerced a woman, the wife of another man, to have sex with him and then corruptly sought to cover up the consequences of that choice. This harmed both Bathsheba and Uriah at the outset.  The thing is, corruption doesn’t just stop, there’s no easy reset button. When David’s quick cover-up didn’t work, he tried something more desperate. In order to make Bathsheba a widow, he manipulated his country’s military, he arranged for the troops to do something contrary to any battle plan, or indeed their own safety. He ordered them to put forward a hot attack and then to abandon Uriah the Hittite to be slaughtered. David caused his army to lose one of its best officers to cover up his own lustful indiscretion. David had gone down the steps of selfishness, greed, deceit and corruption and betrayed his army and indeed his country. As this happened, it became for David, as if his commitments to God did not exist, as if God was not real for him.

“The fool has said in his heart, there is no God. All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good.”

This story is too long for just one Sunday lesson, so it continues next week. I won’t say now what consequences are in store for David. But David was a fool as the psalm explains.

It’s not necessary to be a fool, though many in the world would like you to think it is when they blame others for their own corruption. The opposite of being foolish is being wise. We know wisdom in Jesus. Here’s just one sample from today’s lesson from the Gospel of John: There’s a huge crowd and Jesus talks with his disciples about how to get them fed. Philip observes that they have nothing like the finances to take care of the problem. Jesus just waits—and Andrew looks around for the resources they do have. There was a young person who had a decent sized lunch: five loaves and two fish. The young person contributed what he had, and from that Jesus fed the five thousand people with leftovers to spare. Jesus intentionally did not do this alone, he started with the imagination, resources and generosity of the community. God’s wisdom is in the generosity of God’s people, one with another, their welcome and support of one another, not in the selfishness of a wealthy, powerful and corrupt fool.

Jesus withdrew when they wanted him to be their king, but when the disciples were in trouble out on the lake, he came back to them and said, “It is I, do not be afraid.”

Let us pray.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy: that, with you as your ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

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Come to a deserted place and rest a while

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

The disciples told Jesus what they had done, and Jesus told them to come away and rest. People in general, but Americans in particular, like to focus on the things they do, what they accomplish, how busy they are. I’ve been involved in several occupations, and wherever you get a group of people in the same occupation together, even among clergy, someone (or several) will start talking about how busy they are, how little time to relax and so forth.  Much of this is what might be called “humble bragging”—showing off how successful we are by enumerating our hardships. It’s a trap.

The disciples came to Jesus, and they had been out doing good things, challenging things, and there were all sorts of people around them and all sorts of things were going on. Lots of opportunities, challenges, people to heal or to teach—and Jesus says, “let’s get out of here.”

The text of the Gospel points out that so many people were coming and going that they had no time to eat. In that kind of situation, people stop being able to pay attention. Mostly, we just fling back automatic responses, maybe just do anything we’re asked whether it is of any help or not, or maybe just do the opposite: just say no or avoid helping anybody. There comes a time when our rush to respond and do things and get things done makes us of no earthly good to anyone.

Living in God’s compassion is not a competitive sport.

Our society doesn’t seem to care—busyness for the sake of being busy is rewarded. But Jesus tells his disciples, “come away to a deserted place and rest a while.” Quiet, rest, and prayer build compassion and attention. We think that we can do that while we’re multi-tasking with our busyness. … But that doesn’t make much sense, does it? It takes time to dwell in God’s presence—Yes, God is always here, always present FOR us—but it takes time to re-order our brains, empty our minds, let go of the quick and anxious solutions that we obsessively jump to, in order to justify our busyness. It takes time and rest to hear God’s invitation and to see the truth of God’s world and to appreciate the beauty of God’s people.

Now the world conspires to keep us busy and it is not always easy to find the place and time of rest that God is calling us to take. It says that the crowds figured out where Jesus and the disciples were heading in their boat and they ran around the lake and got there before them. Some deserted place that was. I imagine Jesus laughing when he saw them. It says he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. In other words, confused, heading in all the wrong directions, not finding the pastures they wanted, and putting themselves in danger. So Jesus began to teach them. I suppose that they paid him enough attention that the disciples could sit and take it in without being harassed, at least.

Our lectionary does a funny thing here. At this point they skip two of the most important and best-known stories in the Gospel of Mark, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus Walking on the Water. Most everyone knows those stories, so let’s keep them in mind, because they shed light on today’s reading. Those are big miracles and we remember them as pretty flashy, but they are mostly about Jesus addressing the disciples’ anxiety, getting them to listen and to be calm. Jesus taught the people and they were sitting there all afternoon and it was time to eat. The disciples told Jesus to get rid of the crowds, “Send them away.” Jesus response was to welcome the people, to extend them hospitality. His response to the disciples’ saying the crowds should go and fend for themselves was, “You give them something to eat.” Likewise, later, they were in the boat, struggling, and when they saw Jesus, they panicked and cried out. They were so preoccupied with their anxiety (one translation says “they were tormented in their rowing”) that they couldn’t process the reality that was there: Jesus walking toward them on the water.  We tend to focus on the miraculous and unbelievable aspects of these stories, but in them, Jesus makes his disciples focus on the reality that is there before them. And in the seam between these two miracles, the text says, “After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.”

Prayer and rest are essential in being able to see the world as it really is; to be able to listen and know truth beyond our own anxiety, fear, and unspoken assumptions we hold from our upbringing or our culture. Jesus leads his disciples into hospitality, not by telling them to run around desperately doing things, but telling them to give, telling them to not fear, for he is here with us.

Don’t get caught up in our current fearfulness that manifests in rushing about. All those crowds rushed around, trying to catch Jesus. But he took time and prayed and saw them as they were. Then he reached out his hand and healed them.

Our healing comes in participating in God’s welcome for all people. It’s not some high volume production process – it’s in a simple smile, or a word of encouragement, or a shared prayer. In welcoming we see each person as they are, God’s beloved child. When we are rested in mind and spirit, we can see that.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

 

That we might live for the Praise of His Glory

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

This morning we are baptizing Griffin Loeffler. As beautiful as Griffin is, he is not old enough to talk about it. In all likelihood he won’t directly remember what we do today. So what is it that we are doing? What we are doing, is that TOGETHER we are being Christ’s body, the Church.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, … so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” We will live for the praise of God’s glory, because we participate together in the Resurrection of Christ.  What we are doing is not an empty ritual of the past, but the essential way we live into the future.

This is serious business, so I am going to go through what we will be doing in a minute. If you would like to follow along, you can open your red prayer books to page 302.

We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and his parents so that he can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for this child and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who, usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair, we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through; that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart.

The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us and have life. As Christians we live in hope—not in wishful thinking, or in fearful apprehension about the future. Hope is the sure knowledge of God’s love in the present and the future, hope is knowing the trustworthiness of Christ. God raised him from the dead so that we live with him and in him without fear. Even if we might be afraid or sad at time we share in the joy of Jesus as he shares his compassion for us. “We who were the first to set our hope in Christ now live for the praise of his glory.”

So we do this together. In baptizing Griffin, we are joining once again into our own baptism into Christ. It is a serious challenge, on a beautiful summer morning, to join in the life of Jesus and live in courage and integrity in a world that is often lacking in both. But it is only in this courageous truthfulness that we have the freedom to live in the joy of God, to live beyond ourselves in the praise of God. We do this together as a community, encompassing all our families. Griffin has a mom and a dad, Erin and Cavan. They clearly love him and do everything to make his life joyful and fruitful. So does Colin, Griffin’s big brother. In baptizing Griffin, we participate in and support that love. In fact, as we welcome a new child into our midst, we become the Body of Christ.

Thus our lesson today concludes:

“In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation and had believed him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”

Let us now proceed to seal Griffin as part of God’s own people, and the praise of the glory of God.

Where did this man get all this?

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Jesus went home, and he taught in the synagogue and it was pretty impressive. But THEY knew his background. “That Mary woman, he’s her son. Yeah, we know about that family. He’s just a rough carpenter, sometimes picked up work framing houses—but I hear now he mostly just wanders around the countryside with those ‘disciples’ of his.  He’s better off just wandering out of here.”

Around home, they know all the down sides of people. When we know people from a long time back, we’re not so inclined to be polite about them, and we’re not so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—because we think we know them. But with strangers, it’s different. Especially when someone appears successful, well-dressed, wealthy, powerful. Despite the fact that we really don’t know them, we want to think of them as perfect. And we want to imagine that the people we endorse are perfect—perfectly powerful, perfectly good-looking, no blemishes or doubtful aspects to their background, and certainly never disagreeing with us, or calling our behavior into question.

Jesus was a hometown boy, and the people remembered every little thing, every jealousy, every mistake, every disagreement. By the way—when we talk about Jesus being the incarnation of God, we tend to think that he didn’t make mistakes. I think that’s wrong. He was a human being, and there is no reason to think that, for instance, as a Palestinian kid, he did calculus and differential equations as a three-year-old. His perfection was in being the perfect manifestation of God’s love, and that did not mean that he was never annoying to his elders or contemporaries. So he came to his home town, and he preached in the synagogue. And at first, they listened and the insight touched them, it was extraordinary, but then they said, wait… we know this guy, he’s not so impressive…he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a carpenter.  And we know his family… you know, one of those families—in fact those brothers, James and Joses, I had some dealings with them…

Like the rest of us, the people of Nazareth were looking for something really big, and really impressive, and from sources that could not possibly be criticized. And you know what? Those sources don’t exist, because ever since Eve saw that apple and got into that conversation with the serpent, criticism and suspicion have been a big part of how people do business. So great acts of power… the people of Nazareth weren’t going to see those.

What did Jesus do?  It says, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus reached out and healed, and pretty much nobody noticed.  Because he was familiar, and not driving the newest car, or wearing the fanciest clothes, no one noticed that he reached out to the sick and healed them. No flashes of lightning or puffs of smoke, no fireworks like we saw this week, he just laid his hands on a few sick people and cured their disease.

The important things that God does are not fireworks. We come to God for salvation, but that word salvation—it does not mean dramatic rescues, or big rewards far away and a long time off—salvation means healing, salving, of our souls, our relationships, our bodies and our society. Sometimes, especially close to home, that healing comes without all the fanfare that we might want or expect. Jesus healed a few sick people, and that was all that was necessary. Then he sent out those twelve who were with him. Two by two they went with nothing.  Just themselves, no resources. And what did he tell them to do? “Whenever you enter the house stay there.” That’s all, stay there. Nothing big, nothing dramatic and nothing about what wonderful people the disciples were, or even how wonderful Jesus was. So they were there, they talked about the love of God and repentance. In the process here’s what the Gospel says happened, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I just lived in Bible times, or the times of the early church!” or “Oh, if there was just the opportunity to know what God is clearly calling me to do, and the chance to do it.” I’ve certainly thought that at times. But if we look at Jesus and his disciples, their life was much like our lives, and what they did, was what we do, they came together, talked about the love of God, prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Friends we are living in Bible times. There has never been a time when the world needed healing more, or when there was more hate abroad in the world. Jesus sent his disciples to be with people to bring peace to their houses, just to be there with them. God is the one who casts out demons, but we gather together and pray—like the disciples we may have no bread, no bag, no money in our belts—but God cures the sick and gives us life, not through drama, but through his presence.

St. Paul said this to the church at Corinth:

God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.