Month: August 2018

Poets of the Word

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.

We live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. As if every random thing that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other hand that God isn’t there at all, or God is relevant to nothing. Our epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, says something quite different.

“Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God. It doesn’t say, “all the stuff we get or want” is from God, it says, “Every generous act of giving…” We detect God, we perceive God, and we understand God in the generosity of people. There is a famous passage in the First letter of John, describing God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.” We see God in others when we see that un-self-conscious generosity that puts the needs of others first. I know the presence of God in my life, when I have the gift of being able to give for others without looking to my own gain.

People like to turn it around and make someone else responsible for their troubles and if no one else is convenient then it’s all God’s fault. God is the giver of perfect gifts, the God of love, but it so easy to quickly defend ourselves and to blame.

The letter of James continues: “My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” How often do people get this backwards and become quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s particularly the case when we’re defending ourselves and trying to tag somebody else with being ungenerous or unkind, quick to win the argument. That quickness to speak goes along with a slowness in listening, and in that slowness, we miss the generosity of God.

Attend! Be quick to focus and listen to the living, the most generous, the most perfect God. But that is just the beginning of this passage. It is not enough to just hear good things, and listen to the right answers. It is not enough even to memorize the right answers. Copying out answers from the Bible, or from Dr. Phil, or Oprah or anyplace else will do you no good. Here is how the passage from James continues: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is not enough to just know the right rhetoric. It is when the Word of Life becomes the fabric of your life and governs your way of doing things that it makes a difference.

When I was looking at the Greek of this lesson, I noticed a little detail. That word, “doers” is not a very common or graceful word in English. It’s a good enough translation. In Greek, the word is  ποιητης [poietes] which means a person who does something, but it is also the same word that is used in Greek for a poet–ποιητης [poietes] is the origin of our word poet. A poet takes language and a story and does something with them and does something new that makes more sense and conveys more truth than was there before—at least, that’s what a good poet does. Living the Christian life is much like being a poet: in our lives, we receive the gifts of God, we hear, we listen—any artist spends much time absorbing the world around her. But that is crafted by the artist into something new, something is done so that a new and true gift is made for the world.

I noticed the next sentence in this lesson for the very first time when I was preparing this sermon. It says, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” That image in the mirror, that image that comes from looking at ourselves, doesn’t really reveal the truth about ourselves. Self-absorption does not make the poet. It is the integration of the whole of reality, of getting beyond ourselves, that we become doers of the word, poets with our lives.

When our lectionary shortens lessons for easier listening, sometimes it leaves out interesting or relevant bits. The passage from the Gospel of Mark this morning leaves out these words of Jesus: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’… but you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is an offering to God)—then you no longer permit anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God.” People find ways to do this kind of stuff all the time. They look at their own interests, their obligations and they figure out how to cut corners for their own immediate benefit. They are like those looking in that mirror, here’s how I’ll game this out, and I’ll be the one coming out ahead. At the end they not only forget their parents, but also what is important about themselves, the life of generosity of cae and compassion.  Being a doer of the Word is the opposite of finding a rationale to avoid the obligations of the commandments or to stop living generously.

The text from James continues, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” That doing is the poetry of our lives, and that perfect law is the generosity of God that manifests in the generous lovingness of people. That blessing in our lives is the doing of God’s generosity in lives of thanksgiving.

Hear the call of the Word to us in this morning’s first lesson:

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come; and the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land.

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To Whom can we go?

A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Lord, to whom can we go?

Today is the fifth Sunday in a row that the Gospel lesson is from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Starting with the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus explained that he is the Bread of Life and in him, and by partaking in his body, we abide in God and God in us. Some may hear this as bland or everyday Christian piety. But when Jesus said it, it was anything but bland. It was a huge controversy, and at the end of the lesson all those disciples and all those thousands of people who came to hear Jesus preach and received bread on the hillside were upset and went way. Jesus was alone with the twelve, no one else would stay, and he asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The gospel is a challenge, not a joyride. When we say Jesus is the Bread of Life, that doesn’t imply the cake and cookies and sumptuous meals and everything we think we want. The Bread of Life is the fundamental nourishment of our spirit, the food to get us through the difficult journey. It does not promise power, it just gives us Jesus. And those people who had been hanging around realized that Jesus was on the way to the cross, and he wasn’t going to make their lives any easier, or make them more powerful, or even get rid of the Romans for them.

They left, and Jesus asked that question of Peter. Peter’s answer really struck me this week. I think it is my answer too: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

It was a discouraging time for both Peter and Jesus. What may have looked like success was all gone. We can’t assume that Peter wasn’t interested in success—that he didn’t want to have a successful group, even an organization. But they were all gone. In particular, all those who were there as joiners of successful groups had just walked off. The situation forced Peter to consider why he was there and what he was doing. All the organizational and institutional reasons had disappeared. The idea of a movement that would somehow restore Israel—perhaps as a purer, more loving religion with people helping one another, or perhaps as a political movement that would get rid of the occupying Romans and restore justice—was gone. I don’t know exactly what had been in Peter’s mind in the previous days or weeks or months. But on that day, he said, “To whom can we go?” Where else or what else makes any sense, or has any truth?

The story of Jesus is not one of triumph. And as much as we often would like it to be, being his church isn’t a matter of triumph or success. A while back, I read a book, entitled “Church Refugees.” In it, a sociologist named Joshua Packard interviewed people from a growing category of Christians, who are sometimes referred to as “the Dones.” These are people who have been active in their churches but stop. They are “done with church.” Interestingly, in this research, this group of people did not leave because they were challenged by the Gospel, or because they lost their faith in God; rather they left because characteristics of the church became barriers to their following God and growing spiritually. Judgementalism in congregations and preoccupation with structures rather than service often led to breakdown of spiritual community, at least in the experience of these people. It happens increasingly among people whose experience in many congregations is enough to make them “done with church” altogether. They find themselves alone, with Peter’s question, “To whom then, can we go?”

Peter says these words to Jesus, and he continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When Peter says this, it is not when he is leading the church or defining doctrine. Peter says this when both he and Jesus are basically “done.” The people had come, and they wanted many of the things that they saw, but when they came to see the truth, that Jesus was talking about transforming of their spirit, not about giving them security, power and bread in excess in this world, they went away. Peter and the others in that small group of twelve saw the truth as well, and they knew they could not be part of that large group walking away. They saw the truth and they had no place else to go.

Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The spirit takes us out of concern for ourselves and puts us in a life of generosity. The flesh that Jesus mentions is a preoccupation with our own well-being that blocks us from living in generosity. This happens in churches and other organizations as well as in individuals. The community that is fearful and preoccupied with its own existence, its own material needs, its own desire for the security of the flesh becomes unable to be generous in the spirit. At that point, it is not surprising that some faithful Christians become “done with church.”

In my own life, there are certainly times when I have been very nearly “done with church;” discouraged by being part of an institution pre-occupied with preserving an image of itself that was never real—perfect, successful and never wrong.  What brings me back from being done is my experience of the real church in a real congregation: a community that respects Christ and one another. The temptation is always there to be afraid, to turn inward for fear of losing the flesh and substance of the church. But in any of these cases, we are in the same place as Peter and the twelve. “To whom can we go?” The answer is: to him who we know is the Holy One of God.

Here is what Jesus said:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father

So whoever eats me will live because of me. …

The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

 

Be Subject to one another

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ

I was looking at the readings this week as I prepared for this sermon.  I noticed that the epistle lesson from the book of Ephesians was shorter than most of the lessons from Ephesians have been this summer. So I looked at what the framers of the lectionary were doing with our read through Ephesians.  It turns out that after this lesson, they skip well over a chapter and finish next week with a portion from near the end of the epistle. In the process, they have left out one of the best known passages from Ephesians.  That passage is difficult and it makes a number of people uncomfortable, but it is still there. I think it is more important to look directly at the difficult passages in scripture and struggle to understand them, rather than skip over them and let our discomfort and the discomfort of others do the interpreting. So, let me read this morning’s reading from Ephesians again, continuing through that passage:

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

The key to understanding the last part of this reading is its first sentence: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  In other words, as we respect Christ, we should put the needs and concerns of others above our own. It is addressed to ALL Christians, not one group more than another. We should keep that in mind as we look at the rest of the passage.

The thing that makes this passage uncomfortable, of course, is the next couple of sentences: “Women be subject to your men.”  Why does Paul write that? I don’t really know. However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind when interpreting this. First, we should not assume that we know everything about the place of women in ancient Roman society, from our experience and understanding of nineteenth and twentieth century European and American society, or even of medieval society.  The Christian church in the first century probably had more women than men, not too differently from today. And we know from very early on there were some quite prosperous women in the early churches. In Roman society, a woman’s primary allegiance was to her father, more than to her husband. A wealthy woman, whose father was prominent, might be quite independent of her husband, and, if so inclined, might look down on him and not respect him. In the early church there was also an inclination among many people to understand the freedom in Christ as entitling them to be free from all social conventions. The Apostle addresses the women of Ephesus, reminding them that their freedom as Christian adults is for the service of others, and not for disrespect. There are many details of this passage that are worthy of a much more detailed examination and discussion than we can do on this hot August morning—certainly this is not the last word in understanding the whole of this passage.

But the second thing we should remember about this is even more important: we hear this passage, most of the time, in the light of really bad interpretations done by men who skip over all the important parts to reinforce their own privilege. Believe me, I’m a man, we do this—and it distracts from the real understanding of the words in front of us.  A few years ago I saw an interview on TV. The interviewer asked a man about many crude, demeaning, intimidating and disrespectful things he had said about women in public.  His response was to say he was referring to only one person. When it was pointed out that there were many others,  he labelled the issue as being about “political correctness,” as if respect for other human beings is political. He also said it was “all in fun”—though I think it was he who was having all the fun—and then he finished his response by claiming to be the victim of personal attacks. He never took responsibility for his own attacks on others, nor did he answer the moderator’s question.  Men often do this when they are reading this passage. “Wives be subject …”—hear that? Be subject to me. Treat me like Jesus, the King of Kings!

If you point out to these men that the passage continues regarding men… Well of course, “Husbands love your wives.” Well, you know, I love the ladies, and yeah, just as Christ loved—he’s a man like me, right? So I don’t need to look at the rest—it’s all there, Wives be subject to your husbands, right?

Wrong.

The Apostle is saying something much different, and we need to listen carefully. “Love your wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it.” It is not the honor or privilege that we give Christ that is supposed to parallel the place of men, but rather Christ’s self-sacrifice.  It continues, “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies,” with respect, love, care. It is not quite so necessary to remind women of this, they bear children from their own bodies and often spend their whole lives nurturing them. But we should always keep this in mind: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” Christians are subject to one another, not as slaves or inferiors, but as people who respect themselves and hold others as Christ’s gift, worthy of that same respect.

In thus serving one another we abide in Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

As He says in today’s Gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

 

For there is forgiveness with you

A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice

Our psalm today is a cry of desolation. The psalmist is lost and in trouble, bereft.

“Lord hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. If you Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”

At times of great loss, or confusion: loss of a clear path, human beings can feel desolation.

In today’s reading from the Second Book of Samuel there is a cry of desolation, this one from David, the King. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” David was bereft. His most beautiful and talented son had been killed by David’s own soldiers. The background of this is very complicated; filled with rape, violence, war and intrigue.  The portion of this book between the lesson we heard last week, in which the prophet calls David to account for causing the death of Uriah to this story where David’s son is killed is a set of tales that makes the Game of Thrones pale by comparison.  Absalom rebelled against his father. He raised a large army and caused David to flee Jerusalem. It’s a complicated story, with many motivations, yet one thing stands out to me as the source of this chaos: David failed to respond seriously and to implement justice when his daughter Tamar was raped by his eldest son, Amnon.

David had many wives and concubines, so his many children had different mothers. Tamar and Absalom had the same mother, so Absalom was particularly enraged by Amnon’s outrage against Tamar, his half-sister. David was upset, but did nothing to address the situation, so Absalom arranged for Amnon to be killed and over the next several chapters, chaos, intrigues, violence and war ensued. David continued to fight the war, but didn’t want Absalom hurt.  In war, people get hurt and die. David knew that, or at least, you would think that he did.

We all learn to idealize and think of David the King as a hero, never in the wrong, and always favored by God. But when we read the actual text of the scriptural stories, that’s not what we see. David was very human, very flawed. In combat and certain kinds of politics he was often bold, courageous, and skilled. But when it came to his personal life and his family, he was not courageous or clear about what was important.  He wanted things to go well for himself, to be comfortable, to get whatever women he desired, to have his sons get what they wanted and not to cause him trouble. He wanted the handsome, strong, smart Absalom—this young man who so resembled David himself—as his heir. David didn’t have the courage to sort these things out, to act in ways that would have offended Amnon but brought him to accountability; to seek justice and vindication for his daughter Tamar; to confront the schemings and intrigues of his chief general, Joab; or to speak honestly and frankly with Absalom early enough to address his grievances and perhaps prevent his rebellion. So David went from being a man with ultimate power in an expanding country to…

“Absalom! Oh my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

… to desolation. Make no mistake, David’s desolation was a result of his blindness to his own selfishness.

“If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”

Such spiritual blindness as David had is common. I would venture that anyone who believes that they have never been blind in that way, to some degree, is likely still pretty blind. As the psalm says, “If you were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” It takes great courage to acknowledge our own blindness and misdoings. Many people avoid facing these things because they believe they will be condemned—indeed people will condemn you if they have a chance, especially those who are blind to their own misdeeds and selfishness. But here, we believe in God, and we take our courage from God’s forgiveness of us. Believing that God’s vindication is more important than human condemnation, we can become more human, free and alive. We can see things as they are. The psalm continues:

For there is forgiveness with you;

therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him;

in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,

more than watchmen for the morning.

 

Most of us, perhaps all of us have or will face a time of desolation. A time of loss and bewilderment. Often it has nothing to do with our moral blindness or misdeeds—even when it might, the connection is usually far different than anyone would likely make at the time. It doesn’t matter, forgiveness is with the Lord. In the courage of that forgiveness we can hope to see things as they truly are.  Hope is in the reality of God’s world and of God’s love. But we don’t see it, not really, not in the darkness of desolation. Like watchmen in the darkest hours of the night, all we can do is wait… and hope. The shape of God’s fulfillment of our hope will never be exactly as we wish. David had lots of wishes. And those wishes … he thought they were what he deserved … but they were ultimately his desolation. It takes courage to hope in God, to hope for the reality of God’s compassion and mercy, God’s compassion for every living creature.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

For with the Lord there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption,

And he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

 

Let us pray:

 

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Being truthful in love, we must grow up

A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“What sign are you going to give us then?”

The Gospel story from last week continues. It looks like some of the same people who wanted to make Jesus a king chased him across the lake. It’s this odd thing, they know he’s special and they want a piece of him. He can do something for them, and they want it.  And Jesus is having none of it. They want to talk scripture with him, but they want to argue for their own ends. They have an idea of Moses and of miracles, and they want that from Jesus.  They say, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness …”  Basically, Jesus’ response is, “Wait a minute. You’re making both me and Moses into magic bread vending machines … you just want the bread, and you are ignoring the whole point: God is the source of life, not just getting that bread.”

In our Epistle lesson from Ephesians today, it says: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  We see that in these people in the Gospel lesson who are arguing with Jesus.  The problem is not so much about false assertions, or big heresies. What is going on is that they are defending their prerogatives and asserting their selfish rights. “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, what work are you performing for us?” These people contesting with Jesus were Jewish, but in Ephesians Paul is talking about gentiles, who are also more preoccupied with manipulating the good news (“craftiness and deceitful scheming”) than with listening to Jesus.  So there is equal opportunity selfishness being displayed throughout the Bible. It is people who are stuck on their selfish schemes and their narrow view of their own importance—like children. But what is expected in children, is no longer acceptable once we are ready to take up our adult place in a Christian community.

Which is why Paul exhorts the church: “Being truthful in love we must grow up.” Grow up into Christ who is the head of the body, the Bread of Life. The version of the Bible we are reading translates that phrase differently—it reads “speaking the truth in love.” That’s not inaccurate, but the word “speak” isn’t in the Greek original. What the word in Greek means, literally, is “doing truth.” Which means the emphasis is not on the talking part. Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to be living as truthful and honest people—that means far more than just saying things that are accurate, it means embodying the openness and love that we know in Jesus, or rather, growing into it.

That honesty in love is a good definition of Christian humility, and that is what this entire Epistle lesson is about. It starts, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility, especially Christian humility, is not about thinking of yourself as unworthy or not good enough—it’s not about that at all. It is about that honesty in love.

Here’s the problem with being honestly who we are, however. Sometimes, our personality traits can have their positive sides and their negative. Another way of saying this is that our virtues are often closely linked with our besetting sins. For example, intelligence and arrogance—those often come in pairs, we might notice. Kindness may be linked with fear of confronting others over wrongdoing. Passion and impatience is another duo I have noticed—I’m sure there are many others you can name in yourself and others. So how do we, as Christians, have that honesty in love that lets us balance out our strengths and our weaknesses?

I want to suggest the way can be found in the opening line of today’s epistle: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility is about being honest about both sides, recognizing strengths while acknowledging shortcomings. It takes courage to be humble. A person who recognizes her real strengths may be called upon to use them generously. The result of that is not always being admired or thanked, to say the least. And a person who honestly sees his shortcomings is vulnerable in that moment—others might remark on them as well—but that clarity gives surprising freedom and strength, and the person’s real strengths emerge from that humility. I would go so far as to say that those who say, “I am not much good, I just have weaknesses and sinfulness” are not humble at all, but avoiding seeing their real shortcomings along with their strength and God’s calling.

Our Epistle lesson today is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible.  “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” The life to which you have been called is to recognize the Bread of Life in Jesus and to follow him.

This chapter outlines the Christian life; it is worth taking the text of this lesson home and meditating on it for a long time. We don’t stop being the difficult people that we are by being baptized or by attending church. We don’t have a magic solution; we have a calling.  It starts by encouraging us all to humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love. Because Paul knew that we would have a lot to bear.  There is plenty of non-gentleness and non-humility among Christians, and each of us needs to go a little further in patience than we think we should have to, in order to get along.  We don’t get along by being small factions of like-minded people, because, “There is one body and one Spirit”—our calling has one and only one hope, that is: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  We have one hope, which brings us all together, and that is Jesus, the Bread of Life. We are brought together, not by agreement, but in Jesus, the head of the body.

We are called to live lives worthy of our calling—worthy of our best selves and worthy of Christ.

We are called to partake of the Bread of Life, humbly, honestly knowing Jesus.

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.