Month: November 2018

Put on the Armor of Light

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life

This is the beginning of today’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent, that is to say, they are the first words of the Christian new year. The “works of darkness” enfold us. We live in a world that is filled with darkness—willful blindness, suspicion, corruption, and hatred. That darkness can affect us; make us reactive and suspicious; tempt us to hate and pay back evil with evil. In our Gospel for today, Jesus says:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

In such a time, the forces of darkness can cause damage to many things: the peace of society, safety for individuals, material well-being. But worse still is the spiritual damage of being caught up in that darkness, corruption, hatred, blindness.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t give in to blindness, but see our redemption drawing near. Following Jesus gives us light in the darkness. In our Collect for today, we pray that God will give us grace—that’s grace, which is a gift from God’s mercy, not some strength of our own—grace to put on the armor of light—NOW in the time of this mortal life. The light of truth protects us and allows our spirits to be healthy, even in difficult times. In this real world, we can be of earthly use in addressing the problems around us, because we are protected by the armor of light. The darkness can weigh us down; make us depressed or unmotivated; cause us to be fearful and discouraged. Yet Jesus says: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with [this] dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

It’s at this very time that Christ comes among us bringing our greatest hope and the opportunity for our greatest spiritual triumph. As the Collect says, “in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” It is in his humility of being a person just like us, but not captured by the darkness, which makes him the one who can be the final judge of all people. His compassion and mercy reveal the truth of all of us, including every way in which any of us might give in to those pervasive forces of darkness. He brings us the armor of light, so that we can live in freedom and joy.

That’s the reason why we begin that time of year that everybody calls the “Christmas Season” by talking about the final judgment and the coming of Christ as the judge of all.  It’s because we rejoice in that humble child, the one who is free and brings freedom in the midst of a world filled with the works of darkness. That baby wasn’t protected by an army or divine security patrol. He was protected by the love of a mother and a father who had no power, nor money, nor any more security for themselves than any of us. The judgement of God is here, now, in this time of our mortal life. It is God’s compassion for us and our life of growing into God’s compassion.

It’s been more than two years since I last preached here at Trinity. I have often thought of you, sometimes even mentioned you: your faithfulness, your challenges, your joy. When I read today’s Epistle lesson from Paul to the church at Thessalonika, I was struck by how I feel about this congregation:

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is God that leads us into hope and abundance. God shows us the way and keeps us safe with the armor of his light. With this new year in the church’s life, God calls Trinity Church to discern that way, what it is to follow Jesus and to be God’s joyful people.

From today’s lesson from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Living in Good Faith

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Those devouring the homes of the widows and praying at great length for show, these shall receive condemnation in greater abundance.

The Gospel this morning picks up at the end of a series of dramatic encounters between Jesus and people who wanted to catch him out or trip him up. You may remember two weeks ago, Jesus healed the blind beggar, Bartimaeus who then followed him on the way to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What follows in the Gospel of Mark is an intense series of events, including Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple. That is followed by different groups of people, basically all people with notable ecclesiastical status approaching Jesus with loaded questions appropriate to their group: “By what authority do you do these things?” “Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar?” “Who would a woman be married to in the resurrection if she became the widow of seven brothers in sequence?” “What is the greatest commandment?”

You know these kind of questions, posing as sincere or curious, but really in bad faith, trying to manipulate a conversation to criticize or embarrass the person being asked the question. The questions aren’t questions, they are attacks. Jesus answered them with grace and compassion. And that is the context for the first part of today’s Gospel:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is talking about this bad faith behavior. It’s not about costumes, or offices or what group or party people might belong to; Jesus is taking note of how these people manipulate their image as pious and respectable, solely for their own benefit without regard for the well-being of others. It describes plenty of people who regard their own religious practices and piety as deeper religion than caring for others—“they devour widows’ houses” without a thought that it has anything to do with their Christian faith. The depth of our prayer and the depth of our compassion are the same thing.

So Jesus talks about this widow. She puts two lepta into the treasury. They were just little wafers of copper, far smaller than a penny and not worth much even in a world of poor people with very little cash. As we come into stewardship season many sermons will be preached on this: some will talk about her giving of her substance, all that she had. Others will note that the lady got away with giving almost nothing, just those two tiny discs, so maybe they can too! Most people won’t say that aloud.

But I think Jesus is less concerned with what went into the box than in observing the woman. A widow, it says. It was well-known in that time and place that widows were the most financially imperiled, with precious few possible sources of income, and vulnerable to being cheated or bullied out of whatever assets they may have inherited. Yet this woman maintained her dignity as a member of the community. She took part in the shared responsibility of the community. She gave of what she had. She was devout in the way she lived her life, though those around looked past her, if not down on her. She is contrasted with those who display their wealth, their piety and their smarts in trying to show up Jesus in the marketplace of teachings in the Temple precincts.

What Jesus taught, and what Christianity is, is not high-flown or complex. It’s about living in faith—good faith rather than bad faith. It is simple generosity rather than trying to trick people and show them up by appearing to be the most generous one, or the most religious one. Not that the goal is to wait to be pure before doing anything: if the widows keep their houses and the poor are fed, it’s a good thing in any case. But Jesus is unimpressed by any competition to be seen as the best—he’s impressed by the simple faith of the widow: living in God’s mercy, simply, humbly, generously; accepting God’s generosity and rejoicing in it.

This is my last Sunday at Calvary. Over the past 14 months we have walked the path of Jesus together. I have received much blessing from you, from your generosity and hospitality, your willingness to grow and change.  Calvary celebrates being a welcoming community, and as it lives that mission, there are more and more depths of God’s hospitality that we discover in our life together. As you move forward and Fr. Nathan joins you, you will discover more ways in which Calvary will be the welcoming community that God wants. What makes me most proud is that you are a community that will change and see the new opportunities God has in store—nothing that we have done together will be forgotten, but nothing will stay unchanged. Our life together is simple. We worship together, celebrate together, sing together, learn together. We have shared our stories with one another. Following Jesus is not a matter of learning every detail of everything he said or did. It is not about demonstrating that we have the most thoroughgoing practices of piety or engagement with every Christian practice that has ever been. Following Jesus is living out his compassion, of seeing when someone needs a cup of water and giving it to them, knowing when someone needs to be listened to just a little longer. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t just indulge peoples’ desires, it calls them to be more compassionate themselves and to grow away from self-indulgence and self-pity.  Jesus loved those people who he criticized just as much as those that he comforted. So, thank you for having compassion to me, and walking with me for this past year. You will continue to walk with Jesus in the years ahead.


One hundred years ago today was the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. It’s the source of our Veterans’ Day. On that day, my grandfather was with the Fifth Marines in the Argonne Forest, the final campaign of the war. A few months before, he had been in the Battle of Belleau Wood, which is a defining moment in the modern Marine Corps. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I asked him about the war, because I hadn’t heard anything about it from him. We talked for a while. He said, “It was terrible.” He told me about people he saw who were killed, about poison gas and losing his gas mask. He paid a significant personal price in that war. But the thing is, for him, and for most of the veterans that I have known, being in the military or being in a war, was not about being different, or part of a special group. It was about being part of us—about going home to Kansas, marrying and having twelve kids and building a farm and losing it in the dust bowl. And moving on. Raising the kids, being part of a functioning society where people could prosper and grow together. I know that for my grandfather, Armistice Day was about the end of war and the chance to build peace. So thank you to those who are veterans, for your service, particularly for your service in helping to build peace.


It takes great courage to be simple and to follow Jesus. It’s easier to go along and to pretend to be better than we are. Yet we can be builders of peace, just like that old widow with her two tiny copper coins.

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I saw the holy city coming down from the sky from God

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today we are observing the Feast of All Saints. It’s one of the most important feasts on the Christian calendar.  Officially it happens on November 1, but since people don’t get that day off to come to church, we are celebrating it today.  Of course, Halloween is the Eve of All Saints, so the day before All Saints people prepare for the Feast by imaginatively envisioning all that is scary or evil or demonic, ridiculing those things—purging them through acts of ridicule or perhaps experiencing the terror of what evil could be. Mostly nowadays people just have fun, they don’t take the demonic seriously.

I’ve spoken before about the demonic forces that Jesus casts out—not the caricatures we play with on Halloween—but the ways in which human fears, selfishness and anger take on dangerous and independent forms because people avoid facing them and push them off onto others. People often project the danger and evil onto others, like, for instance immigrants or Jews, when the real demon comes from their own fearfulness and anger, which is then projected onto someone else or some generalized force.

Both Halloween and All Saints are exercises in holy imagination. In appreciating real things by imagining them in more vivid and concrete images. When we talk about saints, we usually think of famous people or great heroes—people with inspiring stories whose lives can be examples of how Christians can be. Many people think of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of poverty to show Christians the freedom that comes in living for others. Many think of him as being all about loving animals. He did love animals, but much of what he did with animals was to teach people to rejoice in their simplicity and to emulate the birds and creatures in their free response to God’s love and beauty.  A couple of weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Oscar Romero who was Archbishop of El Salvador. He lived his ministry as bishop in advocating for the well-being of the poor of his country who were oppressed by a ruthless and exploitative military regime. He was shot and killed at the end of his sermon at a eucharist in memory of a woman, the mother of a newspaper editor; a woman who had in her own ways reached out for the good of the poor,  and who had been killed a year before.

People like Francis and Oscar have big stories and dramatic lives that we think about. Sometimes these spark our imagination of how we can live, but often we develop caricatures of what saints are that are no more accurate or useful than our caricatures of demons on Halloween.

We might have heroes in our lives, but that is not what saints are. Saints are the Holy People of God. And when I say, the Holy People of God, I mean You. Being a saint is not about living a life of punctilious perfection or of winning the race of being the most generous, good and nice person who anybody ever saw. Being a saint is being truly yourself, truly the person that God created you to be. The most important characteristic of a saint is being someone who has received God’s mercy—that would be all of us. So if we are afraid, or angry, or selfish, we don’t have to deny that—we accept that we are these and other things that are much in need of God’s mercy and we offer them to God.  In God’s mercy, we are not crippled by our sins, nor do we project them into demons, but we know that we are loved and that we can love in return.

The reading from Revelation introduces the image of the heavenly city, the perfected Jerusalem descending from the sky.  It is the imagination of our future with God: “The home of God is among mortals…he will dwell with them and they will be his…”  Two years ago, I led a Bible study group on the entire book of Revelation. It’s quite a wild ride—from ecstatic throngs praising God in the courts of heaven to the horrors of war, famine and disease—reflecting a world as chaotic and dangerous as our own. Some of the images in the book of Revelation are far scarier than anyone could think up for Halloween. The image of the Heavenly Jerusalem emerges in that context of fearfulness and demonic oppression in the Roman Empire.

God knows the realities we experience, and also the fantasies and fears that arise as people respond to difficulty and uncertainty. The final truth is that the home of God is with us. And when I say final, I don’t mean, far away, after everything is done with, God will take care of us. What I mean is that the truth is, in the midst of confusion, fear, anger—the real truth is God’s presence, wiping away every tear, giving mercy to all his children, to all his Holy People, to all his Saints.

This is what is important about saints. The temptation is to be buffeted about and give in to all those things out there that confuse and frighten us, but we can renounce them. In a few minutes we will re-affirm our baptismal vows and renounce those things. The stories of saints allow us to imagine life when evil has been renounced. Our imagination of the heavenly city is one story, but there are thousands of stories, millions of them.

We have those saints among us—those who visit people who are lonely or ill; those who welcome strangers; those who faithfully adorn our worship spaces with little or no thanks; those who diligently work to improve our facilities and maintain our physical plant. In more than a year here at Calvary I have encountered many saints and their work. Works of mercy—of giving mercy and receiving mercy.  Take a moment to think of the past year… how has God dwelt among us? Who has done a small act of kindness or been generous in a way that you might not have noticed before? How has it been possible for you to be welcoming, generous, merciful?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked among God’s saints in this place and I anticipate that you will grow in your sainthood in the coming years.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.